04 March, 2018

A Warrior, his wings and the wind that lifted him - Chris Morgan, 311th FG flies west.

The stories of the hugely successful people I get to interview can't be ranked in terms of quality or importance.

But, when asked the question, "Who's the greatest person you've ever met?"  Chris Morgan is...top 10?  Top 5?   I don't know and can't say anything other than,  "Chris is up there."

But, long, long ago, you'd have never bet on it.

Chris Morgan, c.1943 at Advanced Training.  Love the scarf!

Here's the back story.  Chris Morgan was born in 1923, in Whitestone (Queens), New York, and grew up a normal, Depression-era kid, developing a love for airplanes.  Like most who get bit by the flying bug, it was at an airport, where he beheld one of the famous "Gee Bee" racers of the 1930s.  When the winds of war blew onto the U.S. in 1941, Chris responded by joining the Army Air Force in the hopes of becoming a pilot.

Chris made the grade—top grade, in fact, at least if you consider that fighter pilots were/are the pinnacle of an aviator's ambition.  Assigned to the 311th Fighter Group, Chris's mission was to provide air cover and tactical services against the Japanese forces in China/Burma/India (CBI).

The 311th's efforts are rather storied.  You can read about one particular pilot, Bill Creech, by clicking here.  But one really needs to appreciate that the CBI was a hell hole.  The terrain was vast, extreme (Mt. Everest to Burmese jungle to Chinese desert in one hour by air!) and the fighting, a bewildering campaign that was more like the guerrilla warfare of Vietnam than the cinematic sweeps of Europe or the Pacific.

Yet, on October 16, 1943, Chris Morgan took off from the USAAF airbase at Dinjan, India on his first combat mission—a Flight of four A-36s, armed with bombs to not only inaugurate the Group's presence but neuter a Japanese Army HQ, located in the Burmese village of Sumprabum.

I'll be blunt—Chris's Flight Leader screwed up and got the Flight lost.  One member of the fated four took matters into his own hands and broke formation to find his way home on his own (which he did).  But the other three did not.  They belly-landed their precious planes onto a rice paddy smack dab in enemy-controlled land.  Though the three certainly tried, they were unable to evade capture. In three days, the pilots were suffering under the words, shouts, fists, rifle butts and swords of the Japanese Army.

Chris was now a POW of the most brutal captors of WWII.

A drawing of the Japanese POW camp in Rangoon by a British survivor named Ratcliffe.  That's all I know. 

Factoid:  depending upon your source and arithmetic, American POWs of Germany experienced about a 3% fatality rate while in captivity.  Under the Japanese, that number was about 40%.  In this case, that means the Japanese were 10x worse than the Nazis. 

Did you ever read Laura Hillenbrand's book, Unbroken about Louis Zemperini?  Louis's story of survival under the brutality of the Japanese prison system is legendary.  Zemperini's story of triumph is also certainly awesome (repeat).  But to be fair, Louis was but one story of the many who endured same.

Chris experienced torture, brutality, disease and the death of his friends.  Add to this, the ignominy of never actually getting to do the vaunted job you aspired to do, because of another man's incompetence...each painful, broken day was true injustice.

Repatriated in May of 1945, Chris was nursed back to health in the American tradition of showers, shaves, lots of food, beer...and a pat on the back before being shown the door.  Generally, this pull-yourself-up style of rehab can work, if not perfectly, as (at least) it can show some results.  It's amazing how the body can bounce back; Chris went from his 100lb skin/bone frame to back to 160 fighting weight in a blink.  Within 45 days, he looked good enough to start the war-bond circuit.  But body is one thing, soul is another.  For that, he was left with the impossible task of healing himself.

Chris, in his own words, became a failure.

The telegram announcing Chris's captivity.  Gawd, it's cold, don't you think?  But to be fair, just how do you write these anyway?!  In the end, I think they're written as well as possible.

"Who wants to be defined as a prisoner?  Of a Japanese prison camp?"  Chris stated to me in his uppuh-east-cowst accent.  "But it's my life.  For a long time, it didn't work for me.  I hated it."

"So what did you do?"

"I drank.  Wasn't...the kind of man I should have been.  Why does it matter (to you) now?"


Chris, from the film "Wind Beneath Your Wings"—we had to get a scene in where he was steepling his fingers; he spoke with his hands as much as with his voice.

I had to collect my thoughts.  I'd learned that talking with Chris Morgan was never superficial; people who've walked through the valley of the shadow of death (and made it out the other side) have massive mojo.  They're quietly fearless and loath wasting time.  The pressure was on; Chris's question was not rhetorical.  It was personal and if the conversation was going to go anywhere, I had to answer.

"Well...because you obviously figured out how to deal with it."

break break

PTSD, regardless how you define it, is real.  It's a hollywood movie of an uninvited psychopath that suddenly shows up at your door, eats your food, ruins your house, steals your stuff and never leaves.   Chris lost his education, ambition, friendships...and the ability to stop drinking after one, two, five...ten.  The more PTSD took, the more Chris lost.

"How long did it take you to get past all that?!"  I asked with more-than-a-hint of exasperation.

I remember Chris's answer; he raised one eyebrow. Five, maybe ten seconds later, he spoke, "I lost my best friend when Connie died*."

Connie was Chris's wife and, "the best thing I evuh done."

It was through Connie's care that he overcame alcoholism, rewired himself for the future and rebuilt a life of family, career and self-respect.  Yet, when the Vietnam War erupted, Chris  Morgan paid-it-forward to become a nationally renown voice for the POW movement, working in a myriad of ways for ex-POW care, respect and fair treatment once they returned home.

The Morgan family let me take pictures of Chris's replies to letters that his grandchildren wrote.  This is a great response to Ryan's question...which was a great question to begin with!

You must know that 'all this' was not done with the slightest bit of self promotion or fiery indignation. The only fuel Chris required was that of gratitude—for the love of a woman that could see his potential and his place in a country that allowed him to reclaim it.

No place in Chris's small apartment was more hallowed than the space that held Connie's photo.  The reason he let me create a film about his life was that I recognized the importance of that lovely woman in the Morgan family's life.  And of those years of captivity, torture and failure?  He released any grudge against the government that didn't quite know what to do with POWs.  Of the other government that sanctioned his torture?  He forgave them on the grounds that he himself knew what it was like to live in ignorance.


The Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce hosted a deal where mil-vets were honored.  Chris sat at a table with  Corsair pilot Red James and PBM pilot Cass Phillips—the three signed autographs on little cut-out replicas of the airplanes they flew.  It was supremely cool to see the LINES of people waiting to meet and thank these completely great warriors.

I have a memory of Chris that will always persist—we were at a ceremony together and when the American anthem began, I looked over at this 90+ year old man, standing as tall as when he was 20.  And then, he sang the words, loudly, in that accent...and I remember, "That, is the voice of gratitude."

Today, March 4, 2018, Chris Morgan Flew West.

Don't feel compelled to watch OGTA episode, "The Wind Beneath My Wings."  Be advised it's nearly a half hour, it moves at Chris Morgan's desired pace (i.e. steady, thoughtful).

But if you do, recognize that it's not a story about the pain of captivity.  It's a story about the freedom of Love.

*So sad to see you go, Chris...but do tell your beautiful bride hello.  There are many that would love to meet her, too.

28 February, 2018

"Got'm..." - Fred Sheffler, 336th TFS. Flown West

Have a look at the F-4E Phantom above.  Specifically, the cockpit.  It's empty of course—I never put 'heads' in there because (I believe) it somehow spoils the viewer's chance to use their imagination.  The hope is that the empty space forces the questions of, "Who sat there?"  "What was it like?"  "What would I have done?"

I digress.

So anyway, got the cockpit in your mind?  Ok.  Get ready to close your eyes and go back in time to a moment in the cold sky over the sweltering jungle of an angry land...

The video-link below is actually not a video at all.  It's an audio file with a photo that only makes sense at the end.  Just click and listen.

That was the audio chatter on August 15, 1972 when Fred Sheffler and Mark Massen, 336th TFS (The Rocketeers!) bagged a MiG-21 flown by Nguyen Hung Thong over North Vietnam.

Curious - when you were listening, where did your mind's-eye take you?  Did you look up through the thick plexiglass and notice the faded greens and blues of North Vietnam's jungle forest far below?   Did you see the spastically pulsing exhaust of the AIM-7 missile streaking away?   Or, maybe you identified with the triumphant calls of, "Shit Hot!..."


In the Fall of 2016,  I got to work with Fred in recreating his old mount, "235."  The project culminated in a quiet corner of a very loud party with Fred and "back seater" Mark Massen, discussing everything from computer programing to marriage to...and of course, MiGs.

And what was that like?  Well, Mark's a talker.  I get the impression he has a hundred ideas and plans to fulfill each one.  His energy level is high, his gestures large and the conversation moves fast.   Fred, on the other hand, was more pragmatic.  When I spoke, his eyes were locked on the conversation, ears attuned...and answers and observations were offered thoughtfully, deliberately.

Mark Massen (Left) Goofball (Middle) Fred Sheffler (Right)

"Fred, that Powerpoint presentation you gave me, describing your MiG kill.  Do you mind if I re-did that?  Added some animation and made it more of a stand-alone piece? (instead of one that required his narration).

"I'd like that.  I'll need to see it all, make sure it's correct.  But I'd like that."

"Great!  This will be a great project!"

And I great it would be - Fred had drawn out maps describing the times, spaces, photos of the moment and of course, that awesome audio you just listened to.  It worked so perfectly—animated maps, a moveable timeline, maybe some commentary from my ex-NVAF contacts; and best of all, I could imagine the discussion that would follow as people all over the world learned anew of Fred and Mark's aerial victory.

And it wasn't going to be just about killing MiGs!

I THINK this is from the Base Newsletter (Ubon, Thailand)  My favorite part is the photo of Fred and Mark with the red star stencil.  Sierra Hotel x 1000!
I had real intentions of tying the abstract world of combat together with the personal face of an "Old Guy" who's life was so much more than a tick of glory a generation past.  Fred Sheffler was proud of his aerial action but quick to remind that life was more than war—after Vietnam, he was a commercial pilot, dad, husband...Fred liked my holistic approach that learning from warfare was less about destroying and more about building something better.

Unfortunately, it will never happen.

On February 11, Fred Sheffler died. Or, as they say, "Flew West."  And I'm sitting here, kicking myself while holding onto a (metaphorical) box of memories that will never be blessed by the man who made them...

There are a hundred excuses why I never got around to getting the project done and most of them are legit. But it doesn't help the loss of realizing that the shadowy image of a hoped-for idea is all that it will be.

Sigh.  And this happens every day.  Every where.  To every one.

And "this" is why the phrase, "When an old man dies, a library burns" is so damnably painful.

So...(another sigh).

I hope that somehow the chaos and command of the recording crystalized, somehow, in your minds-eye.  Where it leads you is your business...but I sure hope it ends up with something more concrete than a fleeting memory.

Godspeed, Fred - I imagined getting to know you better...


TRANSCRIPT OF AUDIO RECORDING (Fred would have insisted on this)

Callsign "Date 1":  Hey Pistol... you with us?  

Callsign "Pistol 1":  That's affirm.. and... uh.. somebody's got a single bandit coming down from high six o’clock.. the flight on the right, the flight on the right.

Pistol 1:  Check your ops   (i.e. check opposite side of formation)

Palm 3:  We’ve got him insight 

Unknown:  Shut f****ng Guard off!

Pistol 1:  break right
Palm 3:  Take it to the right Date.. take it to the right.

Unknown:  There he is.

Unknown:  Tallyho.. tallyho.

Fred Sheffler:  Okay got him

Palm 3:  Come on Date.. come on .. he overshot

Mark Massen:  Okay   

Palm 3:  Come back to the right. They are right in front of you Major Vest

Mark Massen:  I’ve got…

Fred Sheffler:  Okay

Mark Massen:  Check your auto-acq (i.e. missile targeting computer)

Fred Sheffler:  Auto-acq

Palm 3:  Comeback, right down, you’ve got him right in front of you...


Fred launches AIM-7 missile at MiG - 11.5 seconds of silence as everyone watches...

Fred Sheffler:  Got him...  

Palm 3:  Shit hot! Shit hot! Shit Hot!  Shit Hot!  (i.e. Great job!)

Fred Sheffler:  Okay, keep looking around, keep your eyes peeled

Mark Massen:  Alright...

Pistol 1:  Pistol’s coming back up on your left and I’ve got the other one in sight

Unknown:  He’s burning...

Fred Sheffler:  'Got a MiG…           

"235" survived the Vietnam War to end up as a Target Drone.  This picture is taken on her last flight.
Notice there's no one in the cockpit...

24 January, 2018

Profile 127: Hawker Hurricane Mk.IV as flown by F/O Bert Newman, 6 Sqn RAF

Get a coffee/beer/water/whatever—if you're ADD, at least it will jump around enough to keep interest!

So, last week, I overheard a wealthy trio talking about investing in Bitcoins. One had made the leap, the other two were eager to learn more.  Of the two, one expressed a cautious, if not panicky caveat, "But what happens if the power goes out?!"

While they were marveling at the prospect of getting rich off the zeitgeist of today's tech, it occurred to me that this conversation was actually as old as measured time—humanity has been scrambling for millennia to get rich.

But, spending time around "Old Guys" I've learned that the object of wealth changes over time; the pursuit of money evolves to the pursuit of relationships and that evolves to the pursuit of meaning...and somewhere, before "the end," the stuff of life's riches become as etheral as Bitcoins—memories.

Think about it.  What would you pay to download the mind of your grandparents?  One step further.  How about the mind of Abraham Lincoln? Amelia Earhart? Aristotle?  One step even further—what would you do to ensure that your memories are available for someone else?

Hold that thought.

Have a look (above) at my rendering of Hawker Hurricane Mk.IV, serial number KZ191 as flown by RAF fighter pilot Bert Newman.  Though I think the artwork is passable, the title, "The Last Hurri" is of greater note.

This project came up because a champion of historical aviation (gonna keep him nameless at this point) insisted that I meet Bert and hear his story.  So, I did.  And, as fortune would have it, Bert's old mount, KZ191 was nearby too, albeit in a VERY unrestored state.

Have a look and see for yourself. Trust me, it's an airplane...

KZ191 today.  But don't let her condition fool you—she's (mostly) complete and I suspect interesting days are coming.  I have a few other photos but I think I'll hold onto them for now...
Unimpressed?  KZ191 is actually in pretty great shape!  But, it's going to take some highly qualified work to bring her back to life and when/if that happens, this particular Hurricane will be welcomed by many as a particularly important link to an amazing past.

Today, depending upon sources, 40-41 Hawker Hurricane airframes exist.  Of that number, 12-14 are in flyable condition.  This is good for history geeks because the "Hurri's" legacy is powerful. It flew before the war and ended up soldiering through WWII's last days (in both the ETO and PTO).  As a weapon, the Hurricane was an outstanding one; easy to build, easy to fly, easy to adapt and easy to repair.*

And then, there's that oft-told anecdote (among the most nerdy of history nerds) that the Hurricane was the real star of the Battle of Britain...

In any event, in the case of KZ191—being a Mk.IV variant—was specifically designed for ground-attack use.  The Mark IV was given additional armor protection**, an especially reinforced wing and equipped with two 40mm cannon (and two .303 machine guns for scaring the enemy). RAF 6 Squadron appropriated the nickname of "Tin Openers" on account of the 40mm's usefulness in splitting open enemy armor.

But.  Have a look at the artwork again.  There are some points to make...

I. KZ191 is shown in her 6 Squadron markings circa mid-1945.  However, the airplane was initially acquired in January of 1945 by the 351st RAF squadron and flown by Yugoslav partisans against the Germans in Yugoslavia and Adriatic Sea.  Thus, while flying with the Yugoslavs, her markings were slightly different.  See below...

I found this photo online; © unknown.  But, it shows the Yugoslav "roundels" to great effect.  Too bad the North Koreans ripped it off, but I suspect that graphic-design work is hard to come by in NK.

II. By early 1945, a significant amount of the combat missions flown by the 351st, 352nd and 6 Squadrons involved use of rockets against Kriegsmarine shipping in the Adriatic.  To accommodate these aerial sledgehammers, the 40mm cannon were removed.

Rockets—specifically the British 60lb "RP-3"—were more preferable to the cannon on account of their reliability and power.  However, combat use of rockets required exceptional skill as the launching aircraft had to be in perfectly coordinated flight and fired at precisely the right time.   No idea what the hit-percentage must have been but I've heard it to be well under 10%...(yikes).

I made the little sketch below to illustrate a Hurricane attacking a German ship...

Yet, if a rocket DID hit the target, the result was a hellish example of why weapons developers like to hire people who understand physics.  The photo below is one that Bert provided.  It shows what happened when a 25lb, armor-piercing variant of the RP-3 hit the barrel of a German Tiger tank.  Fantastic power don't you think?!

Notice the RH corner—that little picture is a single-frame from the "gun camera" film recording the attack.

III. My artwork illustrates the rockets under the left (port) wing.  A fuel tank would be attached underneath the other wing but I didn't draw it because it gave the already dowdy shape yet another grotesque bulge.  However, though many Mk.IV Hurris from the theater had the rockets under the right (starboard) side, Bert specifically remembered flying with them on the left as well.

However, it must be appreciated what the rockets and fuel tank did to the Hurricane's already flat-faced aerodynamics.  Fully equipped, a Mk.IV was barely faster than a Cessna 172!***

If you're getting the picture that 'this' was a challenging mission, you're right.  To that end, have a watch as Bert describes the process.  The man's memory is fantastic but if you ever wanted an example of "typical British understatement," This is it.  On a personal note, I think Bert could make being attacked by Grizzly Bears seem, somehow... "interesting."

(My apologies for the craptastic quality of the video—all I had was my GoPro!)
IV. KZ191 is depicted without a letter code because it's likely she didn't get one when the RAF re-re-acquired her from the Yugoslavians sometime mid-1945.  During this time, she was assigned to 6 Squadron.  In July of that year, 6 Squadron moved to then-Palestine/now-Israel to mind the Crown's oil interests against terrorist attacks.

Have a look at the photo below—it's a page of Bert's logbook.  I marked Sept 20, 1945 with a blue arrow as it's one day he flew KZ191.  As a moment of history, it's rather insubstantial.  But, it's pretty cool to be able to connect the dots between places and things, don't you think?  Anyways, Bert flew KZ191 at least three times.

Old log books are supremely cool.  If you ever get a chance to see one, I hope you see the kind where the pilot wrote about the day and detail!

What happened next isn't quite clear.  But, on May 14, 1948, Israel came into its own and the Brits left.  I wonder if the Hurricane's obsolescence was, by then, so well established that even the fledgling Israeli Air Force**** couldn't find a place for the few left behind.   Without spare parts, qualified mechanics and logistics support, KZ191 was carted to a salvage yard in Jaffa where her wings were removed for scrap value.

How the remaining pieces of KZ191 got back to England is another story for another time.

Ok.  Hold THAT thought.

A few weeks ago, I was talking to a Ph.D-type about my work and he commented, "You must have a very large library for your resources."  True, I have more history-type books than I'll ever need.  But, he was genuinely surprised when I explained, "One of my best resources is the modeling community."

"Oh really?!"


Modelers rock!  These people invest enormous resources into an almost manic pursuit of perfection.  They're never satisfied, perpetually curious and enormously critical.  Who better ask about (insert arcane detail question here)?!"

So, to this point, have a look below.  It's KZ191 as crafted by UK modeler Alan Price.  He's one of the excellent modelers that have helped this blog out over the years and also a brilliant history geek (as most of them are, too).  His work is displayed in museums and private collections as well as gracing numerous magazine covers.

When deciding to draw Bert's Hurri, he was the first person I turned to with questions like, "What did the rivets on the radiator's armor plating look like?" and "What camouflage pattern did KZ191 have when it left the factory?"  Obsessive?  Indeed.  But thank gawd Alan knew; it was pretty cool to hear Bert whisper (in that fantastic accent), "Oh my!  It looks as if you've certainly done your resahch..."

All credits to Alan.

Have a look at his work.  It's awesome, don't you think?!

KZ191 by Alan Price.  Gorgeous!  The only thing that's missing is the smell of oil, dope and the amber cast of a setting Mediterranean sun on a dusty air strip...
®2018 Alan Price


So, back to Bitcoins.

As near as I can tell, if the 'power goes out,'  Bitcoins are gone.   Poof.  Putting money into an invisible system that requires constant (and complicated) input seems rather stupid, doesn't it?

But.  Every day, each of us are investing time, energy and resources into something just as hard to figure as Bitcoin and with the same goal of achieving some sort of riches—the thing called "life."   Interestingly, I've never heard of a financial statement handed out a funeral.

So, what's a life worth?

Plato wrote, "The unexamined life is not worth living."  Perhaps, but I prefer the corollary, "The life that's not worth living is the life that's not shared."

As near as I can tell—and this is based on spending time with "Old Guys," life's wealth is a mutual fund (of sorts) that includes demonstrated character, contribution to society and the quality of our relationships.

And the currency of our worth are memories.

Bert used a magnifying glass to examine his log book and my art.  Kind of a poetic way to end this post, eh?

Thanks to Bert for sharing his memories with us.  And, since you've downloaded this information from the Technosphere into your mind, I hope you now feel a bit richer, too. :)

*Think about it—a bullet/shrapnel pokes through canvas? No worries.  Patch it up.  However, a bullet/shrapnel pokes through stressed metal covering?  That requires a bit more surgery to fix, especially if any stress-bearing areas are also compromised.

**This additional armor was, of course, required for low-level attack on enemy ground forces.  One of the challenges in drawing KZ191 was figuring out what the armor-plating on the belly scoop would look like as it was discarded as soon as it wasn't needed.   Maybe if KZ191 gets restored, it will have a 'proper' armor-plated belly??

***A C-172R cruises around 140.  An all-up Hawker Hurricane Mk.IV cruised at 160.  Plenty of time to take a sip of coffee, adjust sights, give a little pep talk to the gun crew and then yell, "fire!"

****Interestingly, the Israeli Air Force equipped itself with the awful Avia S-199.  THIS story is a great object lesson for people who bitch about the quality of their equipment.  If I am ever forced to draw airplanes with nail polish and q-tips, I will remember the IAF and their "Mules."  Read this.

23 December, 2017

Head West: Jerry Yellin.

Did you feel the burst of cold the other day?

Not a long one, just a short, slap to the skin...

If you did, you felt the world wincing in pain upon the passing of a good man.

One of WWII's greats—Jerry Yellin — died 21 December, 2017 with family at 93 years of age.

In 2016, he honored this blog with his time - click here.

However, he leaves behind an enormous example of intelligence, insight and generosity.  He welcomed friend and enemy alike with the grace that comes from one who has mastered life and nothing more to prove.

I hope Jerry is catching up with Phil...

17 December, 2017

Profile 128: MiG-19/J-9 as flown by LtCol Phung Van Quang, 925th FR

Have a look at the MiG-19 above.  Actually, it's not a MiG but Chinese copy more properly called a Shenyang J-6.    This project began last Spring and if you're really interested in this arc, click here.   But, suffice it to state, this beast now has a pilot, the print has a name...and I got my interview (sort of).

As a reminder, the "MiG-19" was the middle-child of the North Vietnamese Air Force's fighter force.  Spec-wise, it's a short hop between the older (but more agile) MiG-17 and the newer (but pricier and more capable) MiG-21. In the end, the MiG-19 is barely remembered as being a transition fighter that had all the bugs of (then) bleeding-edge supersonic tech.   The NVAF outfitted only one squadron, the 925th.

To the Western airplane nerd, seeing one of the breed in-person has its challenges as virtually all of the MiG-19 series—including the J-6—were flown by somewhat and/or enemies.  Also, as a transition aircraft, the jet's moment in the spotlight as high-tech kit was quickly eclipsed by other jets like the MiG-21.

Poor old girl. :(  If I ever go back to Ha Noi, I'm going to volunteer for polish detail.  What it really needs is to be brought inside.  Perhaps next to an F-4?!  (Vietnam needs a kick-butt air museum).
Hmmmm.... ©Me
Still, on novelty factor alone, on my first visit to the Air Force Museum in Ha Noi, I bolted to the sadly weathered relic.  I remember asking General Soat (ret. head of the Vietnam Air Force and 6-victory ace) about interviewing a pilot who'd flown one and he replied that it'd be difficult; there were so many more that flew the 17 and 21...

*insert spinning clock as years pass*

So, this past summer, through some pretty-awesome post-war diplomacy headed by a passionate USMC F-4 driver and a gracious ex-NVAF MiG-21 master, (both prefer anonymity), opportunity to finally engage with a MiG-19 pilot presented itself.

Meet LtCol Phung Van Quang.

But first, there are some things you must know.

A. My interaction with LtCol Quang was much less than preferred; it was way too short,  the language barrier is crazy-hard and there just hasn't been time to cultivate the kind of trust/relationship that lend itself to thoughtful discussion.  Still, for now, it's better than nothing.

B. What you're about to read contains a recount of aerial combat between American and North Vietnamese aircraft that took place on September 2, 1972.  There is significant discrepancy between official USAF and NVAF accounts.  Though the differences will be noted, I am not going to try to determine who's right.  If you want to, knock yourself out.  (I might try later though).

C.  I've had to do a bit of editing due to the language barrier but I'm confident that LtCol Quang is represented accurately.  These edits are shown by ( ).

D.  I'm probably going to be editing this based on reader input/insight (which I welcome, btw).  Future edits will be done in a different color.


If you have another look, you'll notice a red star on the MiG-19's nose.  Chances are good, "6024" did not wear it in combat, at least on Sept. 2nd.  Yet, it is symbolic of LtCol Quang's awarded victory of an F-105G on that day.

Ok?  Ok!
Pilots of the 925th FR circa 1970ish.   Note "6024" in the background - it was also flown by Nguyen Hong Son, a fellow 925th pilot and awarded with three victories.
Photo courtesy of Nguyen Sy Hung   `
Me: Tell me about your upbringing?  Why did you become a pilot?

Quang: My home town is in Hung Yen province, but I grew up in Hai Phong. (I began) martial art training at my infantry unit.  (But in the process) I was spotted by a (member) of (the) Air Force pilot recruitment team, and from then I dreamed of becoming a fighter pilot.

(By) 1969, when I was 20 years old, I had had many fighter (sorties).

Note:  Based on other ex-NVAF pilot accounts, this kind of field recruitment effort seems to have been common.  Though I've heard intelligence testing was part of the process, it'd be interesting to know more about what these recruiters were looking for...

Me:  What can you tell me about a typical day as a fighter pilot in combat?

Quang:  One day(?) on the battlefield... (travel to airport) at 0400, check (out) aircraft, (shower/bathe) breakfast, dressing to fly, then (pilot's brief on any previous day's engagements).  Then, play chess, play cards.  Noon, lunch...then (wait).  (Our aircraft were always ready) for battle.

Note:  MiG-19s were notoriously short ranged and the North Vietnamese Air Force operated under strict coordination from a Ground Control Interception (GCI) base.  MiGs of all species were scrambled only when an incoming American strike was confirmed and the pilots were given strict orders on how to proceed.  NVAF sorties were prescribed with metered frugality. 

Me:  Describe flying the MiG-19...

Quang:  The MiG-19 was given a nickname, "Flying Coffin" because (it was) very old and difficult to operate and control.  But (once) you (learn) to control it, you will like it!  (It was) like taming a wild horse.

(It was) most impressive (for me).  (It was the aircraft) that (I was able) to shoot down an (American jet) that came exactly in front of me.

Note: This attitude of appreciating 'tool that was given' is remarkable and consistent with what many successful pilots state regarding aircraft that are otherwise scorned by historians and people who've never actually flown the airplane.  "Kossi" Karhila of the Finnish Air Force had praise for the cursed Brewster Buffalo*,  Joe Foss thought the F4F was a terrific fighter against the legendary Zero provided airspeed was kept up, Bill Creech thought the P-39 was an airplane spoiled by poor tactics and ignorant press—Hank Snow (3 wars, 666 combat missions/test pilot/airshow pilot) put it this way, "Every airplane can and can't do certain things.  This is called a flight envelope and (when used in combat) you just need to keep it inside."

Me:  So what memory of combat stands out the most for you?

Quang: (September 2, 1972).  (It was an) unequal battle and on that day, I realized how (exhausted) I was.  I had to fly many times and (while flying to another airport), I found an F-4 following another.  (That is how I got my victory).

Break break

My copy of The Red Book sitting on my coffee stained workspace. It's opened to the page dedicated to Sept. 2, 1972.  I added a picture of what "reading Vietnamese" looks like and the strangely packaged but wickedly addicting Vietnamese instant coffee called "G7."
I guess I'm a "method writer."

In 2013, a really cool book was produced by Vietnamese historians, Nguyen Sy Hung and Nguyen Nam Lien documenting "the North's side of things."  Unpublished in the West, it remains Vietnam's authority on aerial combat from 1965 to 1975.  From here on out, if I refer to "The Red Book," this is  what I'm referring.

Though I can read only...maybe...twelve? words in Vietnamese, it's an invaluable resource for me because the book is organized in day-by-day fashion, listing dates, American pilot crew names and units.  Flipping pages to the right date, I was able to sort through details.  Even though there are some contradictions with American records, one thing is certain—things happened quickly.

At 1127hrs, NVAF GCI detected 3 four-ships entering NV airspace on the Laotian/NV border about 120 miles approximately due West of Ha Noi.  Guessing the target was ultimately Pha Lai (no idea what it could have been but today, the place is a giant power plant), GCI scrambled, among other MiG-21s from different squadrons, two MiG-19s of the 925th FR from their home base in Yen Bai. The were directed to head East to Pha Lai; the two pilots were Hoang Cao Bong and Quang—Quang being Bong's wingman.

Enroute, GCI believed they had a better take on the target and re-routed the duo back to the airfield at Noi Bai (now Ha Noi's international airport; great service, nice design, not-so-awesome food options).

LtCol Quang, definitely NOT taken on September 2, 1972.  I suspect he was a little more hurried on that day.
Photo courtesy of Nguyen Sy Hung
I don't know how long it takes to scramble two MiG-19s, but let's say that the two MiG-19 drivers were airborne at 1135—seven minutes allows for comms, running to the airplanes, hot start, taxi and wheels up.  Tight, but doable (at least to my guess as to startup procedure for the MiG!).

Eight minutes into the flight, 1143hrs, GCI called the change to Noi Bai and gave final vector.  Quang then spotted two F-105s (G models used for SAM suppression).  Bong ordered to jettison the drop tanks just as two F-4Es were seen on the other side of the horizon. 

Bong and Quang had worked out a plan beforehand that accounted for an attack on disparate targets.  Bong went after the F-4s, Quang turned into the F-105s.  No idea on distance but since these were visually ID'd, consider them to be close enough to where fast-moving specs can be ID'd.  No idea on what altitude they were at but I'd bet it was higher than 5K.

Break break

The speeds involved here have to be appreciated.  Most likely, the six aircraft involved were not supersonic but still traveling at a brisk rate. Based on what I know, let's call that somewhere between 575 and 675 mph.  At these speeds, a mile is passing underneath in 5-6 seconds, faster if it's head-on.  

Back to the battle.

Now, I'm not quite sure why the 105s and the F-4s were coming in from opposite poles.  Maybe they were from different Flights, Forces...? Dunno.  But, Bong quickly engaged an F-4 and claims to have put a brace of 30mm into the Phantom's back.  This is significant because the MiG-19's three cannon put out about 40lbs of explosive metal for each second of fire. 

Map of the day's events.  I didn't mark where any of the aerial engagements took place but I'd guess this one happened near Noi Bai airport, the center yellow/red graphic of the three marked. 
Indeed, USAF records show an F-4E loss of crew William Commodore Wood and Robert Roy Greenwood Jr. (Callsign TUFA 2) on this day.  But, the loss wasn't recorded as happening anywhere near Ha Noi...but over Laos.  Yet, Bong specifically mentions seeing the F-4 crash north of Ha Noi near the Tam Dao mountains (which is closer to Ha Noi).  

Fairly, "The Red Book" does not specifically state that Wood and Greenwood were Bong's target.  In fact, the Red Book only states the loss as "...very likely."  So, no confirmation, only the researcher's confident speculation.  Indeed, the Red Book offers that Woods/Greenwood may have been actually hit by AAA.  Still, Bong specifically mentions hitting an F-4E. 


Break break (again)

It's time to give more attention to the MiG-19's 3 30mm cannon.  If you squint, you can see the barrel of the cannon mounted in the wing root.  What you can't see is the one mounted in the fuselage.  The cannon in the wing roots each drew from a belt of 75 rounds while the fuselage cannon had 55(some).  So, let's call that a total 205 rounds.

With a rate of fire of 850-950 rounds per minute, the MiG-19 has about 15 seconds of fire or, more appropriately, 15 one-second tugs on the trigger.   With each shell head weighing about 2/3 of a pound, a one-second burst spewed approximately 14 explosive shells.  Put in practical terms, imagine 12 cans of soda pop, filled with explosive, traveling at about 1,700 miles per hour, hitting your car—it's going to leave a mark.

Hmmmm! (indeed).

Back to the battle.

When Bong disengaged, another F-4, flown by Maj. John Lucas and Douglas Mallow (34th TFS), got a lock on Bong's MiG and—through direct hit or close-proximity detonation—blew enough holes in the MiG to force Bong to eject.

Meanwhile, Quang was busy chasing the two F-105Gs (who were busy with SAM suppression).

At approximately 1144hrs, Quang had selected a target—apparently the #2 in the Thud two-ship—and fired one of his MiG's missiles.  It's important to note here that the MiG-19s typically did not carry missiles.  However, on this day, the 925th FR were testing out aerial adaptation of the (relatively) new Soviet SA-7 "Grail" ground to air missile (shoulder mounted by trained infantry).   Quang admitted that he fired his first missile too far away (no idea how far is too-far) and it went wide.  At 600 yards, he fired his second missile and it too missed.  He also fired two bursts of cannon (which also missed).

Lacking any photos of aerial combat between MiG-19s and USAF iron, I had to do this one. I screwed up the tail
and the Thud isn't quite as Thud-like as I'd like but, you get the picture...

Just speculating, this had to be a 'fangs out' moment for Quang.  My experience with talking to ex-NVAF pilots is that they tended to be keenly aware of the cost of their weapons.  Though I didn't ask him, I can only imagine that Quang wanted to justify the missing of two (albeit unreliable) missiles, fuel and 30mm shells.  So, he got in close.   How close?  Assuming an angular closure rate of 400mph, Quang gained on the 105 by 180 yards each second.  In 3 seconds, he was possibly "right on" the F-105.

According to The Red Book, Quang fired a long burst at very close range and, quoting, "...after which the F-105 dove toward the ground."**

GCI ordered Quang to land and at 1158hours, he was on the ground at nearby Kep Airfield.  Later, he was informed that he'd had less than 20% of fuel remaining.  Doing (my) math, in 23 minutes of hard combat, the MiG-19 blew through 80% of gas.   Essentially, the MiG-19 had a combat endurance of 30 minutes.  (ouch).  What the hell...fuel was cheap then, right?  

Now, USAF records do not show any F-105 losses for this day.  I was unable to find any records of damaged F-105Gs—if you know better, feel free to email me.  Why the NV war-time officials granted a victory that, according to The Red Book is not specifically recorded as being destroyed** is beyond me and that's a topic for another day.  But.  It's still a fascinating look at what the NVAF pilots experienced.

I remember listening to MiG-17 ace Van Bay describe the tension and anxiety that came from being on constant defensive alert against an expertly trained enemy.  Though the politics are dramatically different, there's surprising similarity between the English experience during the Battle of Britain and the air war over North Vietnam. Regardless of one's 'side,' the age old story of David vs. Goliath remains a captivating one!

So anyways...back to the conversation...
Quang (Left) in his Search & Rescue flight suit.  No idea of the date, but clearly it's well after the war.  Interesting flight suit design though!
Photo courtesy Nguyen Sy Hung

Me:  What happened to you after the war?

Quang:  After (the) war, I work(ed) at the Vietnam Civil Aviation Department.  (I worked my way to positions of) Vice Director of Air Service, head of (the) Department of Air Search & Rescue (and then became the) Chief Administrator of (the) National Committee of Air Search and Rescue.

When asked about favorite aircraft and admired leaders, the answers were a little more awkward but I gathered Quang thought the Sukhoi Cy-22M was a decent airplane (looks like a MiG-21 enlarged about 20% and modified to carry bombs under the wings.)  As for admired people, Quang singled out Pham Tuan, a fellow war vet who went on to become the first Vietnamese astronaut.  Read his bio; he's an impressive dude and, thumbing through my ideas for future documentaries, there's good reason for me to talk to HIM next...


This was a great experience and I'm very grateful for LtCol Quang's willingness to engage in spite of the fog of war and various other barriers to clear communication.  It shows that so much has changed since those bloody years of conflict...and that in mind, this is the appropriate place to end this post with my last question to Quang.

Me:  So any advice?  Thoughts on legacy?

Quang:  Please (do) your best to avoid war.

Hmmmm.  Sounds like a great title for the artwork, don't you think?

As a thank you, a few prints were given to LtCol Quang for he and his family.
If you want one, let me know but there aren't many left.

*About the Finnish "Brewster."  It's true the Finns modified the Buffalo's basic airframe substantially, removing weight, adding horsepower, etc.  This, of course, changed the Brewster significantly and lead to the fact that, under Finnish direction, pilots flying the airplane achieved WWII's highest victory:loss ratio.  Click here.

**Again, here's where translations can foul things up.  I'm working with translation from a book written in Vietnamese.  Quang seems to be confident that, at least, he hit his target.  Based on what we know about the MiG-19s firepower, any hit would have to be impactful (no pun intended).