Flying low—too low to be picked up by the GCI radar—and well behind the lead F-105 element were First Lieutenant Karl Richter and Captain Ralph J. Beardsley. As the lead element maneuvered in search of SAM sites to attack, Richter and his wingman stayed low, preparing to follow them to the target. Then Richter saw the MiGs. He later wrote in the November 1967 issue of Airman magazine, “They slid in front of us beautifully—about a mile and a half or two out. It was funny. We have so few contacts [with MiGs], it takes probably a full second before it jogs your mind…. Those are not airplanes like any we fly.”
Richter jettisoned his rocket pods, armed his M-61 Gatling gun, and lined up on the left MiG. “He made an easy turn,” Richter wrote. “I moved the pipper [aiming device] out in front of him and started firing.”
Richter kept firing 20-mm. rounds at the rate of 100 per second. “I thought Boy, this is going to be embarrassing if you miss this guy, then Beardsley called, ‘You’re hitting him! You’re hitting him!’ ” Richter saw fire coming out of the back end of the MiG, “but he still seemed to be moving through the sky pretty good.”
Hoang heard a thump. The airplane rolled on its own to wings level. Alarmed, he lit the afterburner as the airplane continued rolling right while he tried to regain control. The aircraft responded, but something was wrong. Hoang glanced around and saw that the outer portion of his left wing was in tatters. “I was still flying though, so I just concentrated on staying under control.”
Richter fired again.
Hoang had just finished checking his engine instruments. The VK-1A turbojet was running fine. “I thought I was going to be okay, when all of a sudden the plane started to come apart.” The instrument panel shattered. Hoang felt pain in his side and back. He reached between his legs for the ejection handle.
Just as Richter ran out of ammunition, the MiG’s right wing broke off. Pieces flew off the tail and another big chunk flew loose from the airplane. As Richter pulled up to avoid the debris, he saw the MiG pilot eject and heard Beardsley announce, “He’s got a good chute.” The two Thuds departed at high speed.
Good chute or not, Hoang’s troubles were far from over. VPAF pilots carried their national flag in the back of their parachute harness to use after ejection. The idea was to wave the flag as they descended in the parachute to alert the ground forces that they were friendly pilots. More than one North Vietnamese pilot had been accidentally fired upon by his own countrymen.
“I was bleeding from shrapnel in my side and back, and my arm was broken,” says Hoang. “I couldn’t reach behind for the flag.”
Meanwhile a flight of F-4s entered the fray. Alone, Bay evaded one missile after another. He used hard turns to defeat the attackers, but the maneuvers were costing altitude and fuel. “I could avoid the missiles,” he said, “but was in a very serious situation. Fuel nearly finished. At first I intended to eject, but when I dropped lower I suddenly saw the Americans flying away. Then I saw [Vo Van] Man in front of me. I followed Man [and landed safely].”
Hoang came down in a rice paddy. When he shouted that he was on their side, the local villagers heard his southern accent and thought he was a South Vietnamese pilot, even more hated than the Americans. “They stripped off my flightsuit and tied my hands behind my back,” Hoang says. “One farmer began beating me until the soldiers made him stop.”
Hoang was in no shape to walk, so the soldiers put him on a two-wheel buffalo cart to be pulled into town. It took an hour for his captors to verify his identity. Once they had done so, they quickly untied him and rushed him to the hospital. After recovering from his injuries, Hoang began flying a MiG-21 and was shot down again on September 29, 1967.
Hoang’s left arm and throat still show the scars from Richter’s attack. Richter was killed 10 months later.
In the first four months of 1967, Bay claimed three more U.S. airplanes. His victories made headlines. He had become famous. A favorite of Ho Chi Minh, he dined regularly with the leader and was grounded, at first sporadically and then permanently, for no reason other than to protect his value as a symbol of triumph.
In 1990 Hubert Buchanan went back to Vietnam to visit the village where he landed after ejecting from his stricken F-4. “I found the guy who got the award for capturing me,” he told me. “I found the guy in the uniform, who I’d seen off in the distance running toward me. He said he was so frustrated. They only had two rifles in the village and he knew he would never get there first.”
At one point in our conversation, Buchanan said out of the blue, “If we had accelerated straight ahead, they would never have gotten us. It was only after we started to turn were they able to cut us off. Otherwise we’d have left them in the dust.”
Robbie’s daughter Deborah Robertson Bardsley tried for years to find her dad—her quest was the subject of a 1993 Discovery Channel documentary. According to the U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii, fragments of remains discovered at the crash site in 1992 and again in 1997 have not been confirmed as those of John Robertson but provide strong circumstantial evidence that he died in the crash. I believe that is the case and told Bay so when I visited his home recently. I think he was hoping, as I was, that the family had finally been able to say goodbye. During my visit, his wife said of him, “He is a hero in my opinion because the people still come to see him.”
Later at a nearby restaurant, Bay and I behaved like all good fighter pilots, challenging each other to drinking games. It grew late, our driver got antsy, and finally Bay stood. Our crowd got up and headed for the car. When the driver pulled to a stop on the main road near the lane to Bay’s farm, Bay hopped out and I followed. He gave me a bear hug, smiled, and headed home.