A 54-Year-Old Mystery: Potentially Solved
It is not often that you get to potentially solve a Half Century old Aviation mystery, but sometimes different threads of people and resources can be tied together through the magic of social media. In our case, at Pensacola Aerospace Museum, we have been interviewing Commander Emory Brown, USN, Ret. who inspired us since childhood when his squadron VF-84, did the flying scenes for the classic Time Travel film “The Final Countdown.” Seeing that classic film as a child, we decided we wanted to be Commander Owen, the CAG of the Nimitz, when we grew up. Life took us upon a different path, and Wings of Gold weren’t in the cards for us. Still, we did manage to get ourselves into the air, and somehow life allowed us a path which saw us teaching future Naval Aviators how to fly for seven years.
Jun. 25, 2022, is a day for us to remember for a unique reason, as it appears that we have solved a 54-year-old mystery involving Commander Brown, and a controversial engagement he flew in on Jun. 16, 1968. At that point he was flying as wingman for his Squadron CO, Commander Walter Wilber, who was skipper of VF-102, the Diamondbacks. On Jun. 16, the two were flying a mission which had a high probability of leading to a MiG Encounter. They were flying F-4J’s on the types first deployment aboard the Atlantic Fleet Carrier USS America. As they approached a pair of Vietnamese People’s Air Force (VPAF) MiG-21‘s operating in the vicinity of the 19th Parallel, the two Phantoms were on the verge of engaging when they were given the recall order by their controlling Agency, Red Crown, aboard the USS Jouett. Expressly forbidden to cross the 19th Parallel, the two Phantoms were forced to execute a 180 Degree turn, which put the pair of VPAF MiG-21’s squarely on their tails.
Just prior to encountering the MiGs, the section of Phantoms flew into a North Vietnamese Flak Trap, which caused significant damage to Emory Brown’s aircraft, including a flameout of one of its engines. As recycling the engine start would render his Phantom’s radar inop, Brown elected to continue flying on only 85 percent power from his other engine. Thus crippled he faced a situation where he had to follow orders putting his section at a disadvantage in an aircraft with degraded performance Emory Brown takes the story up in his own words, henceforth we will clearly note which statements come from us, and which from him, distinguishing between Brown and Pensacola Aerospace Museum (PAM). After showing the account which appears in Osprey’s MiG-21 Aces of the Vietnam War, which showcased the VPAF Perspective of the engagement, he noted the following regarding the report stating the pair of MiG-21s engaged 4x F-4 Phantoms which dove for the ground upon the start of the encounter;
Brown: Not the case! 2 phantoms! I lost my engine before the engagement! We did not dive for the ground! Gene responded to the direction from Red Crown and turned in front of the MiG, setting up perfectly for the kill, all while I am imploring him not to turn! Question: why would 2 Migs abandon the fight in a 2v1 advantage?
PAM: We also noted his response upon meeting his CO, Commander Wilber, after his release from the Hanoi Hilton;
Brown: I asked him about the engagement when he returned and learned that he responded to the scram order and yanked his upper block assembly out! He heard nothing further! That is why he did not respond to my call: “negative-negative-negative-break right! We were behind, down and to the left on combat spread formation. Don had a MiG locked up and his turn across my nose forced me to pull hard right and the MiG closed on him rapidly from behind and fired his atoll! The next time we spoke was on his survival radio. He told us to get out of there, that he had no chance!
PAM: Meanwhile, Emory Brown engaged the trailing MiG-21. Brown was able to close on the other MiG and fire a Sparrow and subsequently a Sidewinder, as he had one selected on weapons selector on his stick. Both missiles streaked toward his adversary, which disappeared into a cloud at a nose down pitch attitude, as reported by Brown and his RIO, Don Manlove. Brown returned to his Commanding Officer to be on scene Search and Rescue (SAR) Commander, and as related above his CO told him to depart the area, as he knew capture was imminent. His backseater, Lt. JG Rupinski was unable to escape from the Phantom, and Cdr. Wilber himself was unable to jettison his canopy and thus barely escaped his Phantom. Years later Brown ran into one of the participants from Red Crown; as clearly noted below
Brown: I was on Fighter Wing staff as the ACM officer and was assigned to give a tour of the ACMR to very high level GS. He observed the entire presentation, which was our engagement. At the conclusion, he remarked that he was reminded of an actual event in which he had been involved on Yankee Station. I told him who I was and he told me a story. He was the controller on Red Crown! He said that even though I had lost my engine, he was confident that we had everything under control! The Admiral entered CIC, took a quick look and ordered the command to escape! He tried to argue, but was sternly overridden! He said that with great reluctance he gave the command. His heart sank as he witnessed the result. The Admiral immediately walked out of CUC. The controller left the Navy after that deployment and took a civilian job with DOD. He saw me turn to cross the 19th and engage the MIG but could not verify the kill! Another part of the puzzle.
PAM: As we are keen students of Aerospace History, we naturally took it upon ourselves to do what research we could to help piece together the story of what happened on that day via what records we could access and cross reference. From the book Mig Killers of Yankee Station, we noted that both Brown and his backseater Manlove were presented with Mig Killer Plaques by McDonnell Douglas in recognition of their fight. Commander Brown also noted what occurred postflight after this controversial engagement.
Brown: I would deeply appreciate your assistance in learning the truth. I have never been in a position to make a claim and, consequently, tried to put that part of the engagement out of my mind. There was a lot involved in that mission and our XO turned CO went to the Admiral with a Navy Cross recommendation. He downgraded that to a Silver Star for me and a DFC for Don Manlove. He was really not happy that I had crossed the 19th. I thanked the CO and noted that I would accept nothing above that awarded to my backseater. The Admiral upped both awards to a Silver Star, approved at Sixth Fleet, and then Roy Cash killed his MiG and the Admiral downgraded my crew again. We were eventually awarded the DFC.
PAM: Thus did Commander Brown carry the incident on his shoulders as he continued in Naval service, graduating from Naval Test Pilot School and flying a wide variety of aircraft in the 1960s into the 70s, when he was detailed to a rather important Test Project we shall note later. In the meantime, he put the past behind him and rarely spoke of this engagement until his backseater Don Manlove passed away a few years ago. Brown noted:
Brown: I received a phone call from Don Manlove’s son about 4-5 years ago with a devastating notification that Don, my best Navy friend and brother, had passed away! I flew to Virginia Beach to deliver his eulogy and told everyone present that I firmly believed that Don had taken that MiG, although I could not provide confirmation. That was the first time I had addressed the subject and the last before now!
In the meantime, scouring various archival material we have access to, we reached out to Tom Cooper, whose coverage of Ukraine’s fight against the Russian Invasion has been first rate from the beginning of the War. Mr. Cooper is widely regarded as one of the foremost Air Combat Experts on Earth, and his databases are considered an authoritative source, as they are cross referenced between known losses on both sides of the many air conflicts he covers. After a brief perusal of his archive, we noted that it clearly credits Emory Brown and Don Manlove with a MiG-21 victory on Jun. 16, 1968, which validates Brown’s victory claim and information from which was likely a factor in his receiving has Mig Killer Plaque from MacAir.
Communicating via Facebook Messenger, the following exchange occurred on Jun. 25, 2022.
PAM: On Tom Cooper’s list of Vietnam Air to Air victories, cross checked on both Sides records, he has your Jun. 16 Victory listed. Checked against VPAF loss records
Emory Brown: How about that!
PAM: It is a pleasure and an honor to try to help clear up a 54 year old Mystery.
PAM: We also found that Commander Brown still possesses the Mig Killer Plaque he was awarded from MacAir, tucked away in his attic, as he never felt right displaying it without knowing he had truly earned it.
The text of our exchange via messenger today is below.
Brown: Dang!! Hard to imagine after 54 years! I owe you big time for this piece of news! Perhaps I should break out the plaque and hang it on my wall!
PAM: We believe Commander Brown’s recognition for his victory is long overdue. Though large hierarchies move at their own pace, helping an Air Combat Veteran find peace and closure from a War over a half Century Old is an important thing. We will update this post as we receive further details, but for us it is an Honor and a Privilege to Give an Air Combat Veteran his due.
On behalf of Lt. JG. Rupinski, Don Manlove, and Commander Wilber, we hope this long overdue correction of the historical record will be done.
Be sure to check out William Cobb’s Facebook Page Pensacola Aerospace Museum for awesome aviation’s photos and stories.
Photo credit: U.S. Navy, U.S. Air Force and Scott Brown
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