The story of the RA-5C Vigilante reconnaissance/attack navigator who became the only American aviator to escape after being captured in North Vietnam

The story of the RA-5C Vigilante reconnaissance/attack navigator who became the only American aviator to escape after being captured in North Vietnam

By Dario Leone
Oct 17 2022
Sponsored by: Osprey Publishing
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On Mar. 9, 1967, RVAH-13 RA-5C Vigilante reconnaissance/attack navigator (RAN) Lt(jg) Frank Prendergast embarked on USS Kitty Hawk (CV-63) became the only American aviator to escape after being captured in North Vietnam. His story was almost too incredible to be true.

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Developed from the A-5 nuclear bomber, the RA-5C Vigilante was the largest and fastest aeroplane to ever operate from the deck of an aircraft carrier.

The operational debut of the `Vigi’ coincided with the build-up of the Vietnam War. Due to its extremely dangerous, and vital, reconnaissance role, the jet sustained the highest loss ratio of any American aircraft in that conflict.

As explained by Robert R “Boom” Powell in his book RA-5C Vigilante Units in Combat, on Mar. 9, 1967, RVAH-13 RA-5C Vigilante reconnaissance/attack navigator (RAN) Lt(jg) Frank Prendergast embarked on USS Kitty Hawk (CV-63) became the only American aviator to escape after being captured in North Vietnam. His story was almost too incredible to be true.

Prendergast had gone through the RAG with Lt Cdr Al Wattay, and they continued as a tactical crew in RVAH-13. However, Lt Jim ‘Bones’ Morgan (a former enlisted BN, and among the most decorated LDOs in the Navy) had gone home on emergency leave so the `Bats” commanding officer, Cdr Charles Putnam, needed a RAN. That afternoon he chose Lt(jg) Prendergast to accompany him on a coastal reconnaissance mission. Normally flown between 3000 and 5000 ft, with a two- to three-mile displacement offshore, Cdr Putnam violated hard-learned rules about altitudes and cloud layers in a desire to get the tasked coverage.

Near Long Chau, 30 miles northwest of Thanh Hoa, Cdr Putnam dove `Flint River 605′ (BuNo 151627) down to 350 ft less than a quarter-mile of the beach to start their run up the coastline. Hit by small-arms fire from the ground, the Vigilante burst into flames and became uncontrollable. Putnam initiated ejection for both crewmembers. While it is most likely that the CO did not eject successfully, he was officially listed as missing in action based on a report from the escort aircraft that a Navy pilot may have been seen running from armed soldiers.

RA-5C Vigilante print
This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. RA-5C Vigilante RVAH-6 Fleurs, AJ601 / 156620 / 1972

Prendergast landed in waist-deep water just offshore. He released his parachute, inflated the bright yellow life-preserver around his waist and fired all the tracer bullets from his 0.38-cal pistol into the air. A dozen soldiers waded out to him, and since their guns were pointed in his direction, Prendergast raised his hands in surrender. One soldier saw his Navy issue revolver and took it. They began a slow, sloshy march toward the shore, with Prendergast making the walk even slower by limping and acting dazed as to direction. First, the escorting, VF-213 ‘Black Lions’ Phantom II made passes, and even fired Sparrow air-to-air missiles at the beach. When two prowling A-1 Skyraiders front USS Ticonderoga (CVA-14) began strafing with their 20 mm cannon, most of the soldiers fled to the beach, leaving only their leader and one other with Prendergast.

Each time the aeroplanes came over, the North Vietnamese soldier armed with an AK-47 assault rifle would duck under water out of fear of being hit. Prendergast saw the SH-3 rescue helicopter from HS-8 approaching and decided it was then or never. The next time the soldier ducked, Prendergast pulled out a small 0.25-cal automatic pistol he kept in his flight suit and aimed at his guard. The guard pointed Prendergast’s own revolver at him and pulled the trigger. Prendergast had counted correctly — the revolver had been emptied shooting tracers. There was a click as the hammer fell on an empty chamber. Prendergast shot him between the eyes with the small automatic.

When the second soldier came up from beneath the water, Prendergast hit him on the head, threw his AK-47 assault rifle in the water and headed for a nearby sand bar. The Vietnamese soldier picked up his gun and began to shoot. On the sandbar, Prendergast bought more time by stopping and raising his hands. As the helicopter came closer, he wheeled around, fired the pistol and ran. The SH-3 swooped broadside and he door gunner blasted the enemy soldier with a heavy M-61 machine gun. Prendergast jumped in and was flown back to Kitty Hawk. The Navy did not let him fly any more missions.

RA-5C Vigilante Units in Combat is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.

Naval Aviator explains why the Iconic Vigilante is his favorite US Navy Aircraft

Photo credit: U.S. Navy


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Dario Leone

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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