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Cover of the book A-3 SKYWARRIOR UNITS OF THE VIETNAM WAR by Rick Morgan.

Testimony of Lieutenant Commander Dick Schaffert pilot of the F8 Crusader saved over North Vietnam

Tom Maxwell and his crew of three flew KA-3B (B-66) aerial refueling tankers off the WWII carrier Oriskany on Yankee Station during Vietnam. Slow and clumsy with no ejection systems, overloaded with jet fuel, they were an easy target for Vietnamese gunners and Soviet Surface-to-Air missile shooters. They also carried the life blood for pilots trying to make it back to Oriskany with an aircraft shot full of holes and leaking fuel; and they made the difference between rescue and capture for downed pilots who needed to be refueled over the Gulf while waiting for Search and Rescue (SAR) helicopters. During Rolling Thunder (massive strikes against N. Vietnam), Tom’s detachment was the difference between rescue and captivity . . . between life and death . . . for dozens of Navy pilots. If you were an Oriskany pilot sucking fumes limping back in your crippled F-8 Crusader, or staring up through the jungle canopy while the bad guys closed in around you, there was always hope. There was Gabriel, the SAR helo, and there was Air Wing Sixteen’s Texaco tanker’s, one like Tom was flying, and they were both there to help!

As depicted in the above drawing on 18, July I was one of the F8 Crusaders that needed refueling. The tankers were forbidden from flying over the north since, as stated above, they were such large targets. On that day after flying cover for a downed pilot, I was 35 miles from water and did not have fuel to make it to feet wet. One emergency call brought Hollygreen 611, over forbidden territory, to save my F8. When plugged in and taking fuel I looked down to see my fuel guage bouncing off Zero. One more save for the good guys and one more downed pilot rescued by the SAR helicopter.

FRONT COVER OF THE ABOVE BOOK – written by Rick Morgan

Naval Aviation is a brotherhood, where men will do heroic things impossible conditions for each other even when your aircraft is a large, highly vulnerable, twin-engined bomber full of fuel without the luxury of ejection seats for the crew of three.

On the morning of 18 July 1967 the carrier USS Oriskany (CVA-34) was sending strike aircraft from Carrier Air Wing 16 deep ‘over the beach’ to hid bridges located near Phu Ly, in North Vietnam. Things went bad from the start as the A-4E of VA-164’s Lt Cdr Richard Hartman was hit by 37 mm AAA near the target. He ejected, and his wingman, Lt(jg) Larry Duthie, immediately started to cover his lead for potential rescue. Duthie, in another Skyhawk from VA-164, was then hit by AAA as well and he tried to head towards the water. Duthie made it about 12 miles east before he too had to eject. With two men on the ground deep in enemy territory all other missions immediately became Search and Rescue (SAR). Among the first to arrive on the scene was Lt Cdr Dick Schaffert, flying an F-8C Crusader from VF-111.

Schaffert set up a SARCAP over Duthie while dodging anti-aircraft fire and the odd SA-2 Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM). After 45 minutes in the area he finally turned over the on-scene commander duties and headed back to the Gulf of Tonking, even though his efforts had left him without sufficient fuel to reach the North Vietnamese coast, let alone CVA-34.

Safely orbiting well over the Gulf of Tonkin, Lt Cdr Tom Maxwell of VAH-4 Detachment Golf was piloting the duty KA-3B Skywarrior tanker whilst monitoring the SAR event on the radio. When Schaffert’s call for help came he looked at his two crewmates, Lt(jg) Jim Vanderhoek and ADJ1 Bill Shelton, who immediately gave him an emphatic ‘Thumbs Up’. Then, against standing orders, he turned the ‘Whale’ westward and flew it inland to find the fuel-starved fighter. A consummate tanker pilot in extreme circumstances, Maxwell saw the F-8, time the rendezvous perfectly and wheeled his Skywarrior in front of the thirsty Crusader while Vanderhoek extended the refueling hose. Schaffert, with his fuel needle bouncing off zero, connected on his first plug and was relieved to see it moving up as they headed for the coast – all this while flak burst nearby and their radar warning gear alerted them to SAM activity in the vicinity.

Both aircraft were able to recover back onboard Oriskany because of the courage and skill of the ‘Whale’ crew. Duthie was rescued by a USAF HH-3E Jolly Green Giant helicopter the following day, but not before the loss of another A-4E, the pilot of which was able to reach the Gulf of Tonkin prior to ejecting. Attempts to reach Hartman, however, led to the loss of a US Navy H-3 Sea King and its crew of four. Hartman became a PoW and subsequently died in captivity.

Because they had violated Seventh Fleeth orders and taken their aircraft over North Vietnam, Maxwell and his crew would not be rewarded with any personal decorations for their actions. The KA-3B involved would be destroyed three months later after a failed JATO launch from Cubi Point, in the Philippines (Cover artwork by Gareth Hector)

A Bitter Sweet Homecoming

Shown in the picture is Lieutenant Commander Tom Maxwell being welcomed home following a six month deployment to the Gulf of Tonkin which was cut short by the tragic USS Oriskany fire on 26, October 1966. It was bitter sweet since we had lost 44 shipmates in the fire including two out of five pilots from our detachment, Heavy Attack Squadron Four Detachment Golf.
Welcoming Tom home on this joyous but somber occasion was Betty his wife, Matthew Thomas the fourth and Debra Ann his daughter.