Ernest W. Drew III
CAPT USNR (RET)
Written during Summer Writing Seminar ’22
Resides in Providence, RI.
Enjoys traveling and photography.
I had been commissioned an Ensign in the United States Navy in October 1964. My assumed career path was that of a naval aviator. However, I was unable to pass an eye exam in March 1965 and was left without an assignment. I did not know what would happen and asked what kind of assignments would be available. In the following days before anyone could give me an answer to that question, I was handed orders to VF41, as their intelligence officer. I knew there was an aviation intelligence officer training school in Colorado but was told that I would report to the squadron without formal training, to a unit that was scheduled to deploy to Vietnam.
In response to the Tonkin gulf incident the Navy had increased its presence in Southeast Asia and established an operating tempo which required 2 aircraft carriers be in the Tonkin Gulf. To help meet these demands, the USS Independence, CV62, was scheduled to deploy to Vietnam in early May 1965 from Norfolk VA. Each aviation squadron in the air wing was required to have an intelligence officer. VF41, an F4 squadron, needed an intelligence officer for their deployment aboard CV62. I became the Navy’s solution to the squadron’s need. I checked into the squadron at Naval Air Station Oceana on a Thursday and was notified that I would go aboard CV62 over the weekend and would be leaving on Tuesday for a transit that would take the ship from Norfolk, VA to Yankee Station in the Gulf of Tonkin.
When we left Norfolk there was a great deal of ceremony both on the ship and on the pier. We were the first carrier to deploy for a combat role from the East Coast. The trip took us down the east coast of the United States with a port call in Jacksonville, FL. Just prior to leaving Jacksonville a collection was taken in all the aviation ready rooms to cover a large unpaid bill at the officer’s club. We spent four days doing flight training in the vicinity of the Virgin Islands because our transit would go around South Africa and across the Indian Ocean without an opportunity for flight ops. This was not the normal transit route. The Arab-Israeli conflict had shut down the Suez Canal. We entered the straits of Malacca at the western end of Indonesia on our way to the Philippines for resupply. This course took us within 10 nautical miles of Singapore and the ship became the first US carrier to visit Singapore since the end of World War II. At the time of our visit, Singapore was part of Malaysia. Ten weeks later Singapore became an autonomous city nation.
On 30 May 1965, the Independence entered the combat zone. The ship had many high-level visitors who came to observe air operations and the work of the intelligence space.
Major incidents and the truth surrounding those incidents will be detailed in SITREPs to reflect the intelligence known at the time. The first SITREP is a mission that started with an observation by senior officials of the intelligence briefing.
The ship had many visitors as illustrated in this first SITREP.
18 July SITREP Attack on Than Hoa Bridge
The A-6s were assigned to bomb the Than Hoa Bridge. The brief was given by the intelligence officers in the Integrated Operational Intelligence Center (IOIC). Two visitors were standing by the back wall to listen to the briefing, Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense and General William Westmoreland Commander of Military Assistance Command, Vietnam. The visitors followed the pilots up to the flight deck and watched the launch of the aircraft. An hour later the communications center notified us that an A6 went down in vicinity of the Than Hoa bridge. The wingman said there were two good chutes. The crew was captured and became POWs.
The pilot of that aircraft was Jeremiah Denton who later became a Rear Admiral and United States Senator.
In the beginning of October, CV62 came off the line and transited to Yokosuka, Japan for rest and relaxation. Having been in the Gulf of Tonkin for an extended period, I had not thought about it being fall which had always been my favorite time of year. I was surprised by the cooler weather and the color of the leaves. I went to Tokyo with a couple of the pilots and visited the imperial palace walls and walked through the parks and gardens enjoying the well-manicured shrubbery and immaculate pathways. We missed the last train back to Yokosuka and had to take a cab. All of us fell asleep and were pleasantly surprised when the driver woke us and said we were at the front gate to the base. The pilots and our Radar Intercept Officers (RIOs) were talking about all the good deals in Japan and were planning a shopping trip. The must have items were Rolex watches, Nikon cameras, and Akai reel to reel tape recorders. On the trip I purchased my first Nikon. Three of the pilots bought 250CC motorcycles.
The next day I asked one of the pilots.
What happened to your motorcycle?
He said to me:
As the intelligence officer you should realize that there are unused spaces or voids within the ship. The Marines are responsible for an area of ship that is restricted access. I found out there were many unused areas in the spaces they control. We had to take all the fuel from the motorcycles and get them to the hangar deck where a Marine would take the motorcycle and it would be taken to an elevator, never to be seen again.
For this service, the pilot paid a small fee to the Marine.
We went back to Yankee Station and experienced the hardest month of the deployment. In the months leading up to October the air wing had lost 8 aircrew killed in action and five aircraft.
16 October SITREP Reconnaissance mission of area northeast of Hanoi
Pilots came to the IOIC for a brief on a reconnaissance mission, an RA5C, photo bird, with an F-4 flying air cover would reconnoiter an area northeast of Hanoi. In mission planning a number of check-in points were established to be transmitted as an indicator of progress along the route. During the photo run the F4 would loiter off the coast until the photo bird went feet dry. The F4 crew was from VF41, and it was my responsibility to debrief them after they landed. Usually these debriefs were short and without consequence. Before the scheduled landing time I knew that RA5C had not gone feet wet. The F-4 crew, the Airwing Commander and Dave a VF41 RIO, stated that the RA5C had approached the coastline at a very low level in excess of 500 knots. To minimize transmission time the pilot of the photo bird called out the check points 1, 2, 3,4,5,6. The last number The F-4 crew received was 6. The intelligence officer from the photo squadron and the head of the intelligence space joined me in the debrief. The photo squadron’s intelligence officer went back to the planning document and made a determination as to the vicinity that the aircraft was lost. The two crew members had ejected and became prisoners of war.
This reconnaissance mission was in preparation for a large Alpha strike, with approximately 20 aircraft to be flown the next day, the 17 October.
Although there were major cultural events in America, the immediacy of mission planning took precedent. The New York World’s Fair at Flushing Meadows, New York, closed after two years. The number one song was The Beatles, “Yesterday”, which I didn’t hear until I arrived back at port.
The next morning the air crews were in the IOIC space by 8:00 o’clock.
17 October SITREP Attack of two targets North oh Hanoi
The pilots were briefed on the 10:00 o’clock launch of the alpha strike. Four of the A-4s were given a bombing mission to attack a fixed surface-to-air missile site (SAM) northeast of Hanoi. This is the first time that one of the fixed SAM sites was targeted. The F-4s were assigned to bomb the Thai Nguyen bridge north of Hanoi and provide Combat Air Patrol (CAP). The vicinity of the bridge was heavily defended with anti-aircraft guns which led to the shooting down of three F-4s. One of the aircraft was from VF 41 and the other two were from VF 84. The initial reports from other aircraft in the area stated, one of the VF-84 aircraft was shot down by anti-aircraft guns in the vicinity of the bridge with two good chutes. The other VF84 aircraft was reported to have exploded upon impact with no parachutes observed. VF41 lost the third aircraft which was observed crashing with two good parachutes
The pilot and RIO of the VF84 aircraft shot down near the Thai Nguyen bridge were captured and became prisoners of war. The pilot was Ralph, my roommate in the junior officer bunk room. Ralph had given me a letter earlier that week to be mailed if he did not return from any mission. These letters were affectionately known as “smoke letters”. The letter was to be sent to a woman he had met in Japan. I accepted the letter from him with the expectation that it would never have to be mailed. After much consternation I decided to find his commanding officer and explain the circumstances of the letter, which I then gave to him. The commanding officer, to the best of my knowledge, did not mail the letter.
Both the pilot and the RIO of the VF84 plane observed exploding were listed as killed in action. The pilot was killed in action, but the RIO had survived. As the aircraft hit the treetops it was rolling inverted and the RIO, Porter, ejected parallel to the ground underneath the jungle canopy and survived. A pilot who had been shot down later in the war was able to get a message to Porter inside the Hanoi Hilton to let him know that he had been listed as KIA. When a Japanese film crew was onsite documenting Christmas inside the POW camp, Porter was able to get himself photographed. The government became aware that he was still alive, and his status was changed to POW. His family had already received a memorial stone commemorating his life with birth and death. He placed the stone in his garden after his return state side.
The pilot of the VF41 was observed lying on the ground still connected to his parachute. The RIO was quickly captured and became a POW. Rod, the pilot did not survive the ejection, but that was not determined until many years later and after the POWs had returned home. His mother kept the same phone number even when she moved, knowing that he would call someday. His remains have never been recovered and his mother has passed away.
The rules of engagement did not allow us to bomb anything defined as defensive. When the air wing first arrived on station there were known to be five defensive SAM sites surrounding Hanoi. They had not fired a missile in anger during the beginning of the deployment. For that reason, they were not considered targets and it allowed the aircraft to fly over north Vietnam at an altitude above 30,000 feet without being shut down. Once the North Vietnamese started using SAMs, it forced the aircraft to fly much lower with increased risk of being shot down by radar-controlled guns in addition to the risk of the SAMs. The increased risk was evident on this day.
The VF84 pilot, my roommate, was later assigned to a unit on the West Coast and had a home in La Jolla. I made it a point to visit him in the eighties. His first question to me was: “What happened to the letter?”
28 October SITREP Bombing mission to protect technology
Two VF41 F-4s were assigned a mission to bomb a high value target in Laos. The target was a crash site with possible classified systems intact. One plane was downed by what the wingman thought was small arms fire. When the RIO ejected, the wingman observed his canopy come off with flames rising 20 feet above the airplane Then, like a circus act, the RIO came rising through flames. The wingman saw two good chutes. He reported that both crew members were alive and attempting to hide from anyone in the vicinity.
On the ground the pilot and RIO heard people looking for them and trying to scare them into moving. The searchers made a lot of noise, described to me later as banging on pots and pans. The USAF softened up the area with air-to-mud assets. An Air Force rescue helicopter was able to extract them from the jungle and take them to Thailand.
4 November SITREP update from 28 October
On 4 November, the pilot and RIO from the 28 October shoot down were flown back to the ship. The crew believed that a door on the bottom of the aircraft, which allows access to the liquid oxygen bottle used to provide oxygen to the aircrew at high altitude, was penetrated by a small caliber round and ruptured the oxygen supply. A fire started immediately, and smoke filled the cockpit. The RIO spoke to the pilot on the intercom who told him to eject. The RIO had his flight suit on and was wearing his gloves but had rolled up his sleeves. He received serious burns on his arms upon ejection. The plane was getting closer and closer to the ground and the fire had burned through hydraulic lines. The pilot reached over his head and pulled on the ejection handles without success. Next, he reached between his legs to the secondary ejection handle and pulled on it without success. The canopy, the first step in the ejection process, is blown off the plane by hydraulics. The catches were released mechanically when he pulled the handles. The pilot could see the ground coming up to meet him and in frustration threw his arms up which dislodged the canopy, the wind ripped it off, and the ejection seat sequence started.
We eventually came off station to return to Norfolk, VA on 13 December. The easiest way to get airplanes off a carrier was to fly them off. The flyoff was scheduled for 12 December. I was up in the operations tower with the logbook to enter departure times for the squadron records. The CO with his RIO, “Wild Bill”, taxied to the catapult for launch. As the plane rushed down the catapult the centerline fuel tank ruptured, and the deck of the carrier was covered in flame. The plane became airborne and was stable. The CO told the RIO that all the gauges were good and to hold on unless someone else told them to bail out. Another F-4 flew underneath them and told them they were on fire which was not being reflected by the information that was available in the cockpit. That pilot then told the RIO to get out and he immediately ejected. The fire however was the remnants of the fuel from the centerline tank and immediately went out. The CO flew the aircraft back to the airfield and landed without incident.
The next day I stepped off the ship. I noticed the pilots wheeling their motorcycles down the pier.
I had been transferred to Key West FL, VF101 as the intelligence officer of the F-4 training squadron. Three of the officers who were with me in VF 41 were also in VF 101. That tour was my last active duty.
Forty years later in 2005, a reunion was organized for the officers who were in VF41 in Vietnam. Of the thirty-three officers who went to Vietnam, 25 attended the reunion. Of those who did not attend one had passed away in an aircraft accident, two had died of natural causes, and Rod Mayer was KIA. The reunion was held at the NAS Oceana Officer’s Club. The officers in the squadron had done very well in the military with two of the officers having become Rear Admirals and a third officer who was the Air Force exchange pilot had become a Brigadier General.
I looked around the club. I had not been there since 1965. I was approached by one of the RIOs and he told me that someone wanted to see me in the other room. The someone was Dave Wheat, who was the RIO that was last seen back in October of 1965 hiding in the bushes, North of Hanoi.
He approached me and said:
I want to apologize for taking so long to do a debrief. I remember the first person I am supposed to speak to after a mission is you as the intelligence officer. My debrief will be the keynote address this evening.
After dinner, RADM Gormley who was the squadrons commanding officer during the 1965 Vietnam cruise, went to the podium and expressed gratitude to all for making the effort to attend reunion. He acknowledged fellow officers who were no longer with us and asked that we observe a moment of silence. He wanted us to specifically remember the crew of the aircraft that was shot down north of Hanoi, CDR Rod Mayer who was killed during his ejection from the aircraft and CDR Dave Wheat who spent more than seven years in prisoner of war camps.
The Skipper then introduced Dave, who began to tell us of his experiences.
The target that day for the F-4s was the Thai Nguyen Bridge, about twenty-five miles northeast of Hanoi. I was flying with Rod Mayer. On the way into the target, one F-4 got shot up and returned to the ship and I found out later it had to make a single engine landing. Then another F-4 was shot down with the pilot killed and the RIO ejecting. We had not reached the target yet. The F-4s were assigned combat air patrol between China and Hanoi for any air threats that might come at the strike group. The strike group started its egress and flew by us outbound to feet wet. The F-4s trailed protecting against air attack. On the way out, an F-4 from the other squadron got shot down and the crew ejected. The pilot and RIO became POWs.
We continued outbound and overflew where the first airplane was hit and crashed into a karst ridge. We were listened to the emergency frequency for any message from the downed crew. Then Rod said, “We’ve been hit.” I ejected, swung once under the canopy, got caught in a tree, and crashed to the ground. I unclicked the harness. The damn tree went up with the parachute stuck in the branches, becoming a marker. I tried to walk but couldn’t. A bone in my knee was broken. I crawled up the hill to hide but a farmer followed the path of broken grass and found me. That is when I became a POW.
The next morning, after an overnight jeep ride, I arrived at the “Hanoi Hilton”. After a couple of days, I was moved to a different prison, ‘The Zoo”, and was placed in a room by myself for nine months without interactions with any Americans. In the first two months I was only interrogated twice. The interrogations focused on what kind of airplane I was in and who were the senior people on the ship and in the airwing. I always said no to their questions, but some of the other POWs had responded with names like Mickey Mouse.
I found a 5×5 matrix on one of the walls. Some of the blocks had letters in them. The matrix held all the letters except K. It was the key to the tap code communications that was used throughout our imprisonment. Messages were sent and received by taps on the wall. The letter A was tap tap (1,1) and the letter Z was tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap (5,5) C was used for K. You communicated with the person on the other side of your wall or sent a message by having the person who received it forward it on. Each day five names of known prisoners would be communicated. Everyone in the camp had a responsibility of memorizing the names of all the prisoners.
At some point the camp administration decided that they wanted a biography from everybody. We were individually taken to a room and made to sit on a concrete block and told to write a biography. I said I would not write anything. Eventually, they hog-tied me with my arms crossed behind my back, put handcuffs on, and tightened them —click, click, click, click—until I thought they could not get any tighter, but they did get one more click out of it. They left me for extended period. The pain was incredible. I eventually said I would write. They took off the ropes and handcuffs. My hands were totally dead, and then they wanted me to write something when I couldn’t even hold onto a pencil. After about an hour, I wrote about four pages. I was told I had not written enough and had to write more. I wrote about the walls in my house that are painted white with big geometric shapes trying to make it sound as ridiculous as possible.
The only shower we could get was cold water. At one point when I was in a four-man room at the Zoo we had been disciplined by not being allowed to shower for two months. One day I was taken from the room and told that the camp commander had been watching me and I deserved to be able to take a shower. I told the guards that I would only take a shower if everyone in my room could take a shower. They returned me to my room, only to return 15 minutes later to tell me that I had insulted the camp commander. They took me to a room that had guards standing against all the walls and told me to take my pants down and lay on the floor. I was struck three times with something that looked like a fan belt.
The POWs were dispersed around Hanoi. When the B52 bombing stopped we were all loaded on trucks and driven back to Hanoi. It was about a 2 ½ hour drive before the B52 strikes but took us 4 1/2 hours because of craters.
We were taken to the Hanoi Hilton, Camp Unity area and were assigned cell blocks. We were able to communicate with one another and realized that we had been placed in the cell blocks in the order of shoot-down. A couple of days later we were all measured for shirts and pants. The day before our release day we were taken into a large room and given clothing—pants, shirt, a jacket, and kind of a gym bag, and a pair of shoes. I can’t recall sleeping that night. The next day, the first airplane arrived to transport any of the sick and the injured POWs. They were put on the first airplane. We were driven to the airfield and sat beside a hangar some distance from the formal release point. When a second airplane arrived, we were driven to the release point. We were called one at a time, in order of shoot down. An Air Force captain from the Operation Home Coming plane was on the runway and gave each of us a salute as we approached him. I was then escorted by two air force enlisted to the plane, up the ramp, and onto the plane.
We landed at Clark Air Force Base, in the Philippines. I was able to take my first hot shower in 7 1/2 years. *
* Thanks to Dave Wheat for reviewing this story.