Frank Tullo has never forgotten his first day as a captain. He was 25 years old and flying from Korat Royal Thai Air Base, one of two F-105 bases in Thailand. News of his promotion had come through late the evening before, and he had sewn a pair of shiny new captain's bars on his flightsuit. He was wearing those bars when North Vietnamese gunners on the outskirts of Hanoi shot him down.
From This Story
I heard Tullo's story a few years ago when he was an airline captain and I was negotiating the sale of radios to his airline. I flew 122 missions in F-4E Phantom IIs, also out of Korat but at a later time in the war. Many of my friends had been shot down over there, and a lot were never heard from again. Most fighter crews were not optimistic about their chances for rescue.
Pilots of the F-105 Thunderchief, or "Thud," in particular, suffered a high loss rate. There was a standing joke among the often chain-smoking Thud crews that the definition of an optimistic Thud driver was one who thought he would die of lung cancer. In fact, the Air Force commissioned a study that showed that during a typical 100-mission tour, an F-105 pilot should expect to get shot down twice and picked up once. At about the time that Tullo got his captain's bars, air rescue planners decided to try to improve the pilots' chances.
On July 27, 1965, Tullo was flying as Dogwood Two in a flight led by his good friend Major Bill Hosmer, a former Thunderbird and the best pilot Tullo had ever flown with. Dogwood was to be the cleanup flight--the last of 24 F-105s, six flights of four, from Korat to hit surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites in North Vietnam. Their job, as cleanup, would be to take out any sites not destroyed by the earlier flights.
The SAM had introduced a new aspect to the war only days before, when an F-4 Phantom II became the first to fall to these new weapons. The missiles were fired from within a no-fly zone near Hanoi, previously immune from attack as dictated by rules of engagement. Tullo's flight would be part of the first attack within the no-fly zone and the first major strike on the SAM sites since the Phantom had been downed.
To destroy the missile sites and take out their command and control centers, each Thud was loaded with two pods of 2.75-inch rockets. (They were also equipped with an internal 20-millimeter Gatling cannon.) Along with the rockets, the Thuds carried 450-gallon auxiliary fuel tanks under their wings. Tullo's aircraft, which was scheduled to be flown to Okinawa for maintenance, also carried a 600-gallon tank on its centerline. He'd have to jettison the tank once airborne to stay with the flight.
This was part of a maximum effort involving at least 48 F-105s--24 from Korat and 24 from Takhli--and another 50 or so supporting aircraft. At this early stage of the war--the buildup of U.S. fighters in Thailand and South Vietnam had begun only six months before--tactics and weapons for dealing with SAMs had not been developed. The projected learning curve for the months ahead was nearly vertical.
It was mid-afternoon when Tullo's flight came over the hills from the south to clean up leftover targets. Dogwood flight had been listening to the action on the assigned attack frequency since an in-flight refueling midway en route. From the sound of things, some friendly aircraft were down. As the flight cleared the last ridge at treetop level before arriving at the target area, Hosmer, who was Dogwood lead, exclaimed, "Jesus!"
Working to hold his position on Lead's wing, Tullo managed to steal a look ahead. "I damn near fainted," he told me years later. "To a good Catholic boy, this was the description of hell." The whole valley was a cauldron of flame and smoke from the ordnance dropped by preceding flights, and North Vietnamese Army flak filled the sky. In the five months he had been in the war, Tullo had seen his share of anti-aircraft artillery, but this was the worst yet.
Hosmer had the flight on course for the first SAM site they were to check out. Tracers were flying past the canopies and the smell of cordite was strong--the pilots depressurized their cockpits when they neared the target area so that if hit, smoke from an onboard fire would not be drawn inside. Only days before, Tullo had seen a column of smoke stream from his wingman's still-pressurized cockpit after the canopy was jettisoned prior to ejection.