17 February, 2014

Profile 84 - FINAL: "573" as flown by Bob Mock and John Stiles

The peasant in the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail was correct-rocks really do float.  And not just the really small ones but the big ones, too.

It's a bizarre process.  A complicated recipe of forces shift, blow and nudge to move big rocks upward through the earth where they breach the soil like a released cork popping to the surface of a lake.  But, to be clear, it's not as dramatic.  The process moves itself along at a glacial pace, millimeter by millimeter.

Don't believe me?  Ask a farm kid if the Spring job of "picking rocks" ever ended.  Or, ask if the rocks got progressively smaller over time.  The answer to both will be "No." (and followed by a groan of frustration).

Alright. Have a look at 573.  It's an RF-4C Phantom flown by pilot Bob Mock and weapons systems officer John Stiles during the Vietnam War.  The "R" in the name stands for reconnaissance; the military application of the word is taking recording activities of the enemy for future action.  In other words, the RF-4C was a camera plane and its job was to take incriminating pictures.

Look at the nose.  See the black trapezoidal shape? Notice the subtle bumps under the nose?  These are the portals for cameras—brilliant cameras that could focus and record tiny actions with incredible detail.  As a point of reference, the picture below was taken in 1944 by recce pilot (pronounce: recky) Burt Hawley.  I have an original print and the clarity is AMAZING.  Imagine what the cameras of nearly thirty years later could do!


On January 20, 1972, Mock/Stiles were out looking for SAM (Surface-to-Air Missile) launchers. The missiles were mobile, pulled by trucks, and protected like a Mad Max convoy of anti-aircraft guns and ground personnel.   Spotting these convoys was obviously a high-risk job; alone, unarmed, the R-F4's only real defense was moving fast and returning to base with the damning proof.

So, spotting such a convoy, the duo made a camera pass—about 4,000 feet above—and turned to reposition themselves for one more photo run...  

Ok.  Time to switch gears for a moment.

SAM missiles were complicated, expensive and, if I can use the word, precious to the North Vietnamese.  Acquired from the Russians, these giant rockets were no mere deterrent; they were intended to destroy American airplanes with a surety and terror that couldn't be matched by a hail of smaller calibre machine gun bullets or artillery shells.  Remember, as wasteful as War can be, it does tend to honor efficiency!

So, ironically, the SAM convoy was protected by smaller calibre 37mm cannon.  These guns would spew their explosive bullets, about 1 to 2 per second, at the enemy aircraft above.  Now, the ratio of 37mm shells fired to each one that actually hit a target, has to be a ridiculously lopsided number.  Likewise, like hunting ducks, the job of being an anti-aircraft gunner required natural ability as well as practice.  Being that this was war, gunners varied in quality.  Inevitably, the mediocre were many and the expert were few.  So, when Mock and Stiles noticed the glowing darts reaching up like fireworks, they weren't afraid.  They had learned to adapt to the gesture via a combination of simple maneuvering and the practical knowledge that the gunners would, most likely, miss.

(Click to enlarge)

But then...

BANG!  573 was smacked sideways as if hit by a titanic baseball bat!  The force required to move 19 tons, moving at 500-some miles per hour sideways is enormous—imagine what it would take to do something similar to a car speeding down a highway!  However, the explosion didn't merely move the Phantom into the other lane, it also flipped it over, sending it spinning like a frisbee.  Upside down.  It was pure, unmitigated chaos.  BANG!  Just like that!  And in case you're trying to visualize what 573 is doing in the air, know that 19 tons of flightless metal doesn't glide.  It plummets.

Ok.  If anyone doesn't believe in the value of "practice," they have either never understood Success or they are absolute idiots.  What happened in the cockpit of 573 after that incredible hit is yet one more testiment to the Boy Scout motto of "Be Prepared."  Spinning, upside down, disoriented, dropping to earth like a rock, Mock and Stiles spent their next SIX SECONDS readying for the ejection.  Keeping calm, going through procedure, taking stock...

What exactly did they do?  No idea.  The specifics are lost to the ether of time.  But this much is known—Bob managed to flip the dead Phantom onto its belly, allowing the ejection sequence to trigger just as the tips of the trees were crossing the edge of the cockpit...

And BLAST!  A wave of heat pushed smoke, cinders and, of all things, insects into John's face as he caught, snapped and swung from a tree, just over the flaming metal carcass below.  And the enemy, of course, saw it all happen and were hot on the trail.

Fast-forward:  Fortune favored Mock and Stiles.  Though deep within enemy territory, they were snatched up by mercenary helicopter pilots flying under the CIA "Air America" program and hauled home.  But the RF-4C was buried where she landed.  The official cause of death for 573 was listed as 37mm cannon fire.

Ok.  If you've been reading this blog at all, you know that there's a MiG in this story. 37 years later, while researching his own Vietnam story, General Dan Cherry (ret.) met the North Vietnamese fighter pilot that he had shot down, NVAF fighter pilot, Nguyen Hong My, in Hanoi.  The MiG was Dan's one documented aerial victory. However, Dan discovered that Hong My had an aerial victory himself.

Time for a pause.

You probably get where this is going, so I'll be brief:  for 37 years, John Stiles was under the impression that he had been shot down by anti-aircraft fire.  But in 2009, through Dan's meeting with Hong My (and a little digging here and there) resulted in the inescapable conclusion that 573 was actually Hong My's aerial victory. 

So what does this mean?

Getting back to those rocks that inch and ache their way to the surface, it meant that John Stiles was not the victim of a spray of semi-random shells but the willful, single intention of a man.  To a Warrior, there is a difference. One could be rationalized as a roll of numbers.  Bad luck, perhaps.  But to know that the killing blow was calculated and delivered by an unseen stalker, and know that that same stalker was still alive...?!


I can't imagine what it must be like to revisit an uncomfortable, but resolved past with a new host of could-haves, should-haves, what-ifs and why-nots.  John, in fact, didn't like it.  And it only got more distasteful when Dan called him up one day and suggested John actually meet Hong My!


In a few weeks, John Stiles is going to Hanoi to meet Hong My.  Now, it won't be the first time the two have met; they got that awkward moment out of the way back in 2009.  But it will be the first time John has set foot on Hong My's home turf.

It took 37 years for the truth of John's shoot-down to come to the surface.  That is a long time.  Do you think though, that anything else has worked its way up, too?

Hmmmm.  I wonder.  And, to that end,  I plan on finding out because I get to go along.  With a video camera.

Stay tuned.

NOTE:   The expenses of this trip are, as you might figure, rather enormous.    That we have managed to raise so much of the money to go is a testimony to the incredible interest this story has generated.  But, if you would like to participate (as in please do!) click here