PATRICK AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. --
On March 30, 1972, North Vietnam launched the Nguyen Hue Campaign. Named the “Easter Offensive” by the U.S. because it began on Good Friday, it was an all-out attempt to knock South Vietnam out of the war. The offensive was entering its second month when President Nixon authorized Operation Linebacker, a renewal of the bombing campaign in North Vietnam that included for the first time the mining of the main port of Haiphong. One of the goals of Operation Linebacker was the reduction or interdiction of the flow of supplies to the North Vietnamese armies fighting in the south. This made bridges prime targets, the most important being the Paul Doumer road and rail bridge in Hanoi.
Operation Linebacker commenced on the morning of May 10, 1972. When combined with U.S. Navy aircraft from the carriers Constellation, Kitty Hawk, Okinawa, and Coral Sea, and a total of 120 aircraft were assigned that day against targets in North Vietnam with 88 scheduled to enter enemy territory.
The 432d Tactical Fighter Recon Wing, stationed at Udorn Air Base, Thailand, got the call to begin the campaign. The 555th Tactical Fighter Squadron received their briefings at 5:00 a.m. and departed.
The mission: Intercept and defeat enemy fighters who would engage the Phantom II bombing strike force to follow.
Oyster Flight, led by “Oyster-1,” was Pilot, Maj Robert “Bob” Lodge and Recon Systems Officer (RSO) Capt. Roger Locher. Already known as a formidable team, they were not alone in greatness. Also in Oyster flight were Capt. Chuck DeBellevue and Capt. Steve Ritchie - the only F-4 team to achieve “Ace” status in Vietnam.
As intelligence predicted, the enemy was present and the element of surprise taken. The ensuing dogfight began seven miles out with two MIGs instantly destroyed from missiles. However, as Oyster-1 prepared to attack another fighter, an enemy MIG-19 flanked and strafed Oyster-1, effectively killing the F-4’s hydraulics, causing fire, and the aircraft rolled and plummeted from 7,000 feet. The order was given, and Capt. Locher ejected upside-down. No one could confirm either survived.
Almost three weeks later, Capt. Richie was flying a different mission when he overheard a radio transmission stating, “Any U.S. aircraft, this is Oyster-01B, over.” Recognizing his friend, Capt. Ritchie replied and contact was made. The reporting went to the top of the chain that Locher was alive.
General John Vogt, the Seventh Air Force Commander in charge of all air operations in Southeast Asia, cancelled the entire air tasking order for the following day and redirected assets to support the rescue of Capt. Locher. This decision triggered the largest rescue effort to that point with over 150 aircraft. The mission was all-volunteer and deemed extremely high-risk as the enemy knew Oyster-01B’s location.
On June 2, 1972 the rescue party went in force with HC-130’s aircraft, Jolly Green helicopters, and A-1 aircraft, all supported by F-4 and F-105 fighters for protection.
KC-135 tankers flew to provide fuel and B-52s bombed an enemy airfield close by. Capt. Ron Smith, “Sandy-01,” was the on-scene commander directing engagement against enemy ground forces attempting to capture the downed Airman. “Jolly 30,” piloted by Capt. Dale Stovall of the 40th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron, flew his helicopter less than 50 feet above the trees despite heavy ground fire in order to reach Capt. Locher.
Under fire, “Jolly 30” hovered into position and lowered the jungle penetrator. Once Oyster-01B was secure, the helicopter returned to Udorn, AB. General Vogt flew from Saigon to meet him.
The USAF engaged one MIG, destroyed a 14-car train of enemy positions, and faced constant ground fire. Capt. Locher’s 23-day evasion was the longest successful escape and rescue of the Vietnam conflict.
The 119 volunteer aircraft that supported the rescue executed the deepest recovery and personnel in the war, over 350 miles north of the DMZ, with no aircraft losses.