Talking Proud --- Military

Hmong find F-105 pilot hanging from the trees

June 28, 2016

By Ed Marek, editor


“The body bag held the contents of one Major Sanders, former F-105D pilot, whose remains had been retrieved and returned to (Lima Site 20) Alternate that very afternoon by a CIA case officer whose Hmong team cut them down out of the trees where he had been hanging for several weeks still in his ejection seat.”

“Secret Soldiers-Shadow Warriors, portraits in Courage,” by Dan Moody


The pilot's remains found were those of Major Steven Roy Sanders, USAF, F-105D pilot, 357th Tactical Fighter Squadron (TFS) "Licking Lizards" based at Takhli Royal Thai Air Force Base (RTAFB). This photo shows him on his first tour in the Indochina War, when he was a captain flying F-105s with the 469th TFS at Korat RTAFB, 1965-1966. A family member has said he was assigned to an air base in Oklahoma to train pilots after the first tour. He didn't like it, and asked to return to the F-105 and the war. His wish was granted and he arrived at the 357th during February 1969. The F-105 was officially known as the "Thunderchief."

I have found precious little information about Sanders' loss. Therefore, I will make multiple assumptions. Furthermore, I intend to use his loss as cause to explore several questions raised by this crash, as a means to educate ourselves about the aircraft and the environments in which the pilots flew them. To the extent I can, I want to first present facts as officially documented. Later on I will go over some of those facts and analyze what might have happened.

The facts as I know them


Major Steven Ray Sanders was shot down over Northern Laos, August 25, 1969. He began serving with the 357th TFS in February 1969. This photo is of a 357th F-105; they were coded "RU" on the vertical stabilizer. The "100" is its tail number. Sanders' tail number on the day of his loss was 591818, but only "818" would show up on the tail in large letters. The digits "59" indicate the year the aircraft was produced, 1959. Major Sanders had been at Takhli since February 28, 1969 so his aircraft crashed less than two months after his arrival. This was his second tour with the F-105, the first being with the 469th TFS, Korat RTAFB.

Overall, during his Air Force career, Sanders received the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Purple Heart and by my count 15 Air Medals. He also flew 100 missions, mostly over North Vietnam (NVN) on his first tour. That was an important milestone marker of pride for pilots flying on combat missions over hostile territory in Indochina. I will discuss his experiences on this first tour later.


Sanders was flight lead of four 357th TFS F-105s attacking enemy ground forces, both North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Pathet Lao indigenous communist forces. Those enemy forces were moving through northern Laos near the Plaines des Jars (PDJ) as part of their effort to fully control the PDJ and position themselves to overthrow the Royal Lao Government (RLG). The white area on the graphic marks the PDJ. The red dot roughly marks the crash site.

This map also shows CIA landing sites, called "Lima Sites," "LS" to be short, each one numbered. These landing sites were built, and often lost and retaken several times over time. In the lower left, note LS20A, the site to which Sanders' remains were taken. I'll touch on this crash site again in a moment.


The official statement listed Sanders as “killed during operations on ‘Barrel Roll’ while making a strafing pass after five bombing passes on enemy troops." The report said he was hit by ground fire. I have learned from Sanders' brother that Sanders' wingman said he saw the aircraft explode but did not see a chute. This graphic shows the Barrel Roll region. Broadly speaking, the Barrel Roll included all northern Laos while Steel Tiger included the southern Laotian panhandle as shown on the map. The Ho Chi Minh Trail, heavily protected, extended from roughly Steel Tiger East all along the Laotian-Vietnam border and into Cambodia. Also note the location of the PDJ in Barrel Roll West.


The USAF provided the coordinates of Sanders' crash site. I do not know exactly what is meant by "crash site," whether it was where the aircraft was found or where Sanders was found. Keep in mind that Long Tieng is where Sanders' remains were taken after being found.


The crash site coordinates are very close to the modern town of Then Poun. Crash reports said he went down near Ban Thien Phoun which was renamed Then Poun. You can get a feel for the terrain. It is quite mountainous just a bit to the north.


The jungles can get very dense and terrain very difficult such as shown here east of the PDJ.


Hmong indigenous fighters living in Laos, controlled by the CIA and fighting against the NVA and Pathet Lao, were usually briefed to be alert for downed American and allied pilots and told to attempt to rescue them or retrieve their remains if that was their status. In Sanders case, a CIA-led Hmong team did find him as described earlier. This is a photo of Jack Jolis, a CIA case officer operating out of LS-20A, with what was known as a Hmong Rascal Team, which meant the Hmong dressed in civilian garb, trekked through the mountains looking for NVA-Pathet Lao concentrations, after which they would pass through the enemy and drop markers that emitted electronic signals for friendly forces to locate.

Major Sanders' remains were brought to Lima Site 20A (LS-20A) or Lima Site 20 Alternate, which was a major CIA base at Long Tieng, Laos (shown in the photo).

It was also the headquarters for General Vang Pao, who led the Hmong fighters on the ground, working closely with the CIA. CIA's Air America used the site and USAF pilots and maintenance people were also posted there, many working covertly for CIA. The presence and missions of the CIA and USAF were classified until years later.

I do not know exactly when Sanders' remains arrived there, but I do know his remains were in a body bag at LS-20A on December 8, 1969.

On the surface it looks like there is a disconnect between the date of his loss, August 25, 1969 and the day I know he was at LS-20A, December 8, 1969. I will address that later.

Let me address how I know he was at L-20A on December 8, 1969. Dan Moody wrote about a December 8, 1969 visit to LS-20A by Major General Robert Petit, USAF, shown here, at the time the commander 7/13th AF, Udorn RTAFB.

Moody wrote this about one part of the Petit visit:

"General Petit's 2/Lt aide noticed an olive drab bag over in a corner. He casually asked what it was. Someone answered, slightly incredulously, that it was a body bag. 'What’s in it'? The Lt demanded somewhat imperiously. 'Why', said Mike Byers, 'I believe that it may be a body'.

"The Lt. leapt some five feet to the side of his master. Indeed, the body bag held the contents of one Major Sanders, former F-105D pilot, whose remains had been retrieved and returned to Alternate (LS-20A) that very afternoon (December 8, 1969) by a CIA case officer who’s Hmong team cut it down out of the trees where he had been hanging for several weeks still in his ejection seat. The body was not recovered without risk or casualty."

Dan Moody, who wrote “Secret Soldiers-Shadow Warriors, portraits in Courage,” and Karl Polifka, who contributed to that article, were both Raven Forward Air Controllers (FACs). Polifka was at LS-20A when Sanders' remains and General Petit were there. The remains were in the Raven FAC facility when Petit's aide and Petit spotted the body bag.

On the surface it looks like 14 weeks passed from the time of Sanders' loss, August 25, 1969 until I can for sure place his remains at LS-20A. Why that long? The short answer is I don't know, but will address the question later in my analysis.


We should thank the Hmong for a job well done — Sanders' remains were returned to the US and he was interred in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific Honolulu Honolulu County Hawaii.

That is about as much as I know for certain about Sanders' loss.

Sanders' first F-105 assignment, 1965-1966

I'm going to switch gears now and talk about Sanders' first F-105 operational assignment with the 469th TFS at Korat RTAFB. Sanders served with the 469th 1965-1966, a period during which F-105s were nearly completely committed to bombing NVN. These missions, of course, were much different and far more difficult than those he conducted over Laos during his second tour. President Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) terminated all US aircraft bombing of NVN in 1968. That helps explain why the F-105s were used so much over Laos during Sanders' second and final tour in the Indochina War.

Major Robert M. Krone, USAF, shown here, was initially the operations officer for the 469th TFS “Fighting Bulls.” He arrived at Korat RTAFB in early November 1965, Major William E. Cooper in command. Krone has documented his time with the squadron from November 14, 1965 - June 3, 1966 in an oral history. He summarizes flights flown, identifies the pilots and their tail numbers, their targets and talks about various events of note. He reports about many missions flown by Sanders.

Operation Rolling Thunder

Prior to getting into Krone's report, I need to talking briefly about "Operation Rolling Thunder." Sanders flew Rolling Thunder missions and as you'll see, this was a much different kind of operation than he was involved in when he was lost in Laos.


Rolling Thunder was a strategic bombing campaign begun in 1965, employing a variety of USAF and USN aircraft, targeting the NVN, designed to convince its leadership to stop fighting, rope in the insurgencies it was supporting in Laos and the RVN, and negotiate. The F-105 was the USAF's foremost fighter aircraft at the time, and was used extensively. The photo shows four dropping their loads over NVN during this operation.

Rolling Thunder was a controversial step by LBJ and is generally viewed as ineffective. It did not achieve its objectives I have just outlined. Furthermore, borrowing the words of Wyatt Olson reporting for
Stars and Stripes:

"There were heavy-handed restrictions on targets, shifting and vague operational goals, underestimation of the enemy, and lack of intensity and confused evaluation."

Nonetheless, the fighter units were tasked and did their job as best they could under the circumstances, arguably did better than could be expected given the circumstances under which they flew.


Military commanders opposed the way LBJ ordered the operation to be conducted, He wanted to start gradually, limit targets to below the 19th parallel, and keep the line moving north until the NVN agrees to negotiate. The DMZ was at the 17th parallel. However, attacking Hanoi and Haiphong was not permitted. US commanders felt this approach would not break the will of the NVN to fight. In fact US military commanders vigorously opposed the whole concept of the war, one of "gradualism" instead of all-out war. This photo shows him conferring with members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) on LBJ's front lawn, December 22, 1965, discussing the Rolling Thunder Operation.

Note General Curtis LeMay, USAF, chief of staff, USAF (CSAF), in the middle of the photo, with his hand up to his mouth. You can tell right there he is not happy. He commanded the forces that dropped the atomic bomb on Japan, he wanted to do the same to North Korea. He was a strong advocate for widespread bombing of North Vietnam, saying:

"My solution to the problem would be to tell the North Vietnamese Communists frankly that they've got to draw in their horns and stop their aggression or we're going to bomb them into the stone age."

He was glad that at least the US was being allowed to attack the north, but he strongly advocated using airpower as a coercive force rather than employing large numbers of ground forces.


Finally, in 1967, seeing he was getting nowhere with the NVN, LBJ authorized attacks against Hanoi and Haiphong. This photo shows a bomb exploding near a NVA AAA site in Hanoi in 1967. Once these targets were attacked the NVN started to feel a real pinch as targets important to the NVN's war machine were struck and destroyed or heavily damaged. Just as the pinch was being felt, in 1968, LBJ terminated the operation. Thereafter, most air power was targeted at the enemy in the RVN and Laos.

During Operation Rolling Thunder, U.S. aircraft flew more than 300,000 sorties and dropped about 643,000 tons of bombs on NVN. More than 900 U.S. aircraft were lost, 745 crewmen were shot down. Following the operation, the NVN stepped up their struggle in the RVN and Laos. Indeed the NVN launched its RVN-wide Tet Offensive early in 1968. So LBJ did not meet his objectives.

The US targeting process was a mess, and convoluted. I’ll not go into that here in any depth. But I do want to say a few things.

It appeared that war in Indochina was increasingly likely in the early 1960s. So in May 1964 the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) set up a Joint Working Group in Washington to address air operations against the NVN. On May 22, 1964, the group examined 451 possible targets in the NVN, and presented a preliminary list of 99 to the commander-in-chief, Pacific (CINCPAC). Strategic interdiction and strategic paralysis had the emphasis as opposed to industrial targets. The 30 highest priority targets were airfields, key military headquarters, and barracks. The idea was to at least temporarily paralyze the NVN’s ability to conduct war. The second group of 61 targets added storage facilities, railway assets, vital rail and highway bridges, and ports. Only eight targets represented the military industrial capacity of the NVN.

The lists were redone and redone and redone.

The US methods of targeting NVN was fraught with problems:

  • NVN was fighting mainly a guerrilla war. Such a war did not lend itself to conventional targeting.
  • The NVN had no significant industrial base, so there was little to hit, the effects of hitting those that did exist were limited, and even where some mostly light industry was important the NVN simply rebuilt it and moved it.
  • The transportation system did not turn out to be a good target either. It was durable and redundant. Rail and roads were not used to full capacity. There were extensive waterways and trails that could be used instead.
  • And, perhaps the biggest issue was that over 80 percent of the NVN’s war-making capacity came into its main port at Haiphong, and attacking Haiphong harbor was forbidden through out most of the operation.
  • During these early years, the NVN Air Force (NVNAF) was small and limited in capability. Furthermore, its air defense system was limited. But, given that Hanoi and the Haiphong port were off limits, the NVN was able to build up its air defenses quickly with Soviet and Chinese equipment. The surface-to-air missile (SAM) and AAA would gain strength rapidly, causing higher rates of losses for US pilots as the war dragged on.

Sanders goes to war

With that, let’s get back to the 469th TFS and Capt. Stephen Roy Sanders' missions as documented by Major Krone from November 14, 1965 - June 3, 1966.

The squadron deployed from McConnell AFB, Washington on or about November 8, 1965 and began flying combat on November 15.

In March 1965 "Operation Rolling Thunder" kicked off American air attacks against the NVN. Capt. Sanders participated in those operations while with the 469th TFS at Korat RTAFB.

While most of its 24 pilots were seasoned on the F-105, they were for the most part not seasoned conventional warfighters. The F-105 was designed for nuclear war requiring straight, low and high speed attacks, dropping a single nuclear bomb, while the conventional war in Southeast Asia demanded a whole different set of skills, tactics, and ordnance loads. Especially at the beginning of the war, pilots learned what they learned while in the fight — GIs call that "OJT," or on-the-job training.

The squadron lost one pilot to a surface-to-air missile (SAM) two days after arrival, Capt. Donald G. Green, USAF, shown here. One other aircraft was lost that first week as well.

The 469th flew almost all its missions over NVN, attacking mainly bridges near Hanoi, roadways leading to China, SAM sites, and railroad bridges.


I’d like to quickly summarize the combat flights flown by Sanders as documented by Krone:

  • Flying with “Bamboo” flight on December 3, 1965, a fourship into the NVN along with F-105F “Wild Weasel” fighters flying “hunter-killer” air defense suppression missions. The F-105Fs were not able to activate any SAMs, but the other F-105s struck a military barracks near Son La.
  • A fourship with “Spruce” flight on December 4. They were set to attack three SAM sites northwest of Hanoi but that mission was cancelled because of bad weather at the initial point (IP). An IP is usually a well-defined point easily distinguishable visually or electronically, used as a starting point for a bomb run against a target. So they struck a Hanoi-China Red River railroad line as an alternate target.
  • On December 7 with “Ebony” flight, outfitted with Air-Intercept-Missiles (AIM) to provide escort for RB-66 electronic countermeasures (ECM) aircraft over Laos and NVN. F-105 fliers were not well trained in air-to-air combat, in part because their aircraft was not designed to engage in such. But they did it anyway. If in a big jam, they could always outrun their opponent with speed.
  • On December 20 with "Locust" flight, each of the four aircraft flying with six 750 lb bombs with time-delay fuzes. They struck a highway between the PDJ and Ban Ban on Route 7 and hit a gun emplacement.
  • Flew lead with “Elm” flight on December 24 targeted at a storage area. They carried LAU-3 rocket pods and struck a storage area.
  • He flew again in a fiveship on January 22 in “Spruce” flight carrying two MK-84 2,000 lb bombs. Nr 5 carried a camera and flew chase after the target was hit.
  • Part of three fourships, “Bamboo,” “Tulip” and “Walnut” flights out of Korat striking a warehouse in the NVN. Major Krone mentioned that every F-105 aircraft in this mission was lost over the course of the next year.

Bombing over the NVN was stopped by President LBJ, with Korat flying its last F-105 missions over the NVN on December 24, 1965. It was called the “Christmas bombing halt.” Thereafter they flew over Laos. That was a huge change. Krone would say flights over Laos were “milk runs” compared to those over the NVN. The bombing halt did cause consternation in the squadron, with pilots wondering what was going to happen in the future, trying to explain the rationale for the halt, and the effects a resumption in bombing if that were to happen.

The F-105 bombing of NVN resumed on January 31, 1966. The pilots were told through their frag order (tasking order):

“To our surprise the frag order of January 31st listed our targets and included the statement, 'Rolling Thunder missions for today 31 January will be executed regardless of weather.' ... The final words from Saigon on that frag order gave us a clue to the political forces at work: ‘The eyes of the world will be on your pilots today. Good luck and good hunting!' “

Krone called it “A return to the North day.”


The F-105s on this mission experienced heavy AAA fire including fire from 100-mm weapons. This F-105, flown by Capt. John Piowaty, USAF, shown here, was hit by enemy 85 mm AAA. The larger photo shows where he was hit. One F-105 was hit with shrapnel but not seriously damaged. Another was shot down and the pilot, Capt. Eugene D. "Dave Hamilton," was killed. Hamilton was on his 87th mission. His remains were returned to US authorities in December 2004 and he was firmly identified in October 2005.

The next mission I found Sanders on was January 8, 1966, flying against targets in Laos. He flew another on January 22 against a storage area in Laos.

He spent some time in Saigon during what was known as “expert week,” and returned to flying duties on February 12, 1966, though he was listed as a spare and I believe not used. He flew again on April 15, just a few days before he was due to go on leave to Hawaii to visit his family. This mission took him to a truck park near Dong Hoi, NVN, just a bit to the north of the DMZ. They received some 37-mm fire but all made it home in good shape.


Lt. Colonel William E. Cooper, the squadron commander, was shot down by a SAM in April 24, 1966 flying lead in an attack against the Phu Lang Thuang Bridge. He flew F-105D-15-RE 61-0051 and was hit as he approached the target area at about 6,000 ft. The wrecked airbrake and vertical stabilizer are shown in the photo. Lt. Jerry Driscoll was hit by AAA. Driscoll bailed out, but was taken as a POW. Cooper's aircraft broke in half, the cockpit section falling to the ground with no sign of a parachute. He was listed as presumed KIA but listed as MIA. His remains were later found and firmly identified. As an aside, he was a B-24 bomber pilot in WWII.

This was the second raid on the bridge. The squadron lost four aircraft attacking it during two days.

The loss of Cooper meant Major Krone would take command.

Sanders returned from leave on May 1 to get introduced to almost an entirely new squadron from the one he had left, to include having a new commander, though he knew Krone well. By this time he was one of the few old hands in the 469th.
Krone assigned him to be scheduling officer in addition to his flying duties.

He flew on May 8 with two fourships, “Pecan” and Bamboo” flights, attacking the Can Nung railroad bridge in NVN. Sanders was flight lead and his number two man, Lt. James Edwin Ray, shown here, was shot down on his 13th mission and taken POW. Krone noted that of their 24 pilots, only four were combat hardened, one of whom was Sanders.

He flew again on June 3 with Major Krone flying Nr 3 on Krone's 100th combat mission that was a “counter,” that is, it counted toward their tally which in his case now reached 100. Time to go home. Major Krone was the first squadron commander to achieve 100 missions. That ended Major Krone’s history of flying with the 469th and terminated his memoir.

Pilot experiences as reflected in Krone's oral history

In reading Krone's oral history several times, I was struck that in between many of the lines were a treasure of pilot experiences that he noted. I thought I should try to highlight some. I'm sure there are many more from other sources.

In the case of the 469th TFS, they arrived on November 8, 1965, and started their first combat missions just six days later. Krone commented:

“There was not much transition or rest after we arrived … We got thrown into the mission flying immediately in addition to the tremendous administration load of organizing the squadron, getting people settled, and finding necessary supplies.”


Bridges were a frequent target. The F-105s did not have smart munitions so often they would either fail to hit the target, fail to drop the bridge, or only cause damage, sometimes extensive, but damage that could be repaired. That said, the pilots would destroy some bridges. One of the more famous attacks was against the Thanh Hoa bridge, about 70 miles south of Hanoi. USAF and Navy fighters attacked it numerous times, failing to bring it down until the introduction of laser guided bombs in 1972. Without those laser guided munitions, in 1965, F-105 Thunderchief fighter-bombers and other aircraft hit the structure more than 300 times without inflicting any lasting damage.

Early in November 1965 you can see the enemy’s air defense people were not very good. That might have been because the equipment was new to them, or they ha not yet received their new equipment, or these kinds of USAF missions were new to them.

Early "Iron Hand" missions were used to diminish the threat of SA-2 missiles with some good successes because of a pop-up maneuver developed to cause surprise or they used terrain masking. "Iron Hand" missions were suppression of enemy air defense (SEAD) missions. NVA AAA operators seemed confused and slow to react, so initial missions saw very little flak.


By December 1965 the enemy got much better at air defense, employing heavy AAA fire using 37-, 57- and 85-mm AAA guns. Furthermore Krone reported heavy flak, SAMs, both SA-2 and SA-16, and MiGs on a mid-December mission. The photo shows a F-105 after it was hit by a SA-2 SAM. I’ll mention that Krone reported:

“The various combination of small arms, automatic weapons, AAA, SAMs, and MiGs is something we have not coped with before.”

He complained that the crews were so tired following their long and complicated missions that they were not able to document what they encountered and how they reacted with regard to flying tactics, information that would be valuable for follow-on missions. Krone worried a lot about that. Krone said in early January 1966 they had been flying seven days a week, 20 sorties per day with 24 pilots, keeping three on rest and relaxation (R&R) at a time. He said the F-105 was the real workhorse and they had to do air-to-air refueling on every mission. Each pilot flew about 10 hours per week on average.


Most F-105 missions were bombing. But they did conduct strafing missions employing 20mm cannons.This is a photo of a F-105D on display, showing the M61 Vulcan 20 mm cannon. Some would fly what was known as MIGCAP, or escorts to ward off enemy MiGs while other aircraft attacked targets. While the pilots did their best, as I said earlier, the F-105 was not designed for air-to-air combat. It had more than enough speed but lacked the maneuverability.


Almost all the missions reported by Krone were over the NVN around the Hanoi area. Krone said they would carry 500 lb.bombs, 750 lb. bombs, either six or four on the centerline and two LAU-3 rocket pods on the wings, or perhaps five 750 bombs, or five MK-83 1000 lb. bombs, or two 3,000 lb. bombs, or they might just carry four LAU-3 rocket pods. This photo shows a F-105D carrying a full load of sixteen 750 lb. bombs on five hard-points. I interpreted Krone’s notes to say that four of the LAU-3 pods could carry 76 2.75 in. rockets. They would carry four 9-B air intercept missiles (AIM 9B) when flying MIGCAP, or a camera when flying photo reconnaissance. I understood Krone to say these would be armed reconnaissance flights.

By January 1966 the pilots were developing pretty good tactics, and relied more on their own experiences than the tactics handed to them from on high.

RefuelLargeNumber F105s

The F-105s normally flew in single flights of four, especially early on, though they might fly along with a “Wild Weasel” configured air defense suppression aircraft, an EB-66 electronic countermeasures (ECM) aircraft, or a photo configured aircraft. However, in mid-December six flights (four in each flight) of F-105s from Takhli and five from Korat flew against a thermal power plant north of Haiphong, flying with five aircraft each, one aircraft involved in flak suppression. They were accompanied by F-4Cs and EB-66s, the former for flak suppression and the latter for ECM. The first time they all went up there they aborted for weather and dropped their ordnance in what was called the Udorn jettison area. They went to the same target the next day and again encountered bad weather, but went in anyway. For the second attack flight 108 USAF aircraft were involved, 23 F-105s for strike with 67 F-105s, F-4Cs, EB-66s, RF-101s and KC-135s flying support. Krone said:

“The Uong Bi Thermal Power Plant was one of the largest plants in NVN, producing about 14 percent of the nation's total capacity of 176,000 kilowatts. The bulk of its power production went to Hanoi and Haiphong.”

For this attack, they encountered overcast skies and heavy AAA fire. They struck a multi-story generator hall and a transformer yard and open storage area, destroying 13 buildings, with several secondary explosions noted.

I thought I might convey some of the difficulties encountered during this massive mission.

First, one flight was forced to dive through overcast skies to attack the target while receiving heavy AAA fire. Adverse weather prevented some from even getting to the target, though some F-105s dropped their ordnance anyway through the bad weather and did hit their targets. Throughout the attacks, they received automatic weapons fire and 37-, 57- and 85-mm AAA fire. One F-105 flown by Capt. Harry DeWitt was hit by a SA-16 SAM but he managed to eject over the Gulf of Tonkin and was picked up within 30 minutes by an USAF HU-16 Albatross. Five F-105s were damaged by AAA fire but made it home. Some F-105s had to go to secondary targets. SAM and MiG warnings were received, which caused some F-105s to hit the deck and jettison their bombs into the Gulf of Tonkin.

I’d like to stick with this business of the challenges the pilots faced on their missions for a few more moments. It's constructive to hear what they encountered from those who encountered the problems.


For a Laos mission, the pilots liked working with an airborne forward air controller (FAC), but sometimes they could not make radio contact, and had to find the targets on their own. On one particular mission, after initially failing to contact a FAC, the lead would try again and did so. They successfully struck hostile ground forces and their equipment. Usually the FAC would mark the target with a white phosphorous rocket. This photo shows the small O-1 FAC by the red arrow and white smoke marking the target he wanted struck.

The pilots had to fly burdened by numerous restrictions. Major Krone comments once:

“They are pretty serious about restrictions, however, and a tour in Leavenworth is hardly worth the risk … The political considerations are overriding, of course, and the 'rules' require constant study by the pilots to keep straight.”

"Leavenworth" was the Ft. Leavenworth military prison, known as “The Castle.”

I know from listening to pilots that reading the rules of engagement (ROE) in the briefing room fast became to hard. The briefing book was in volumes. They did they best they could.

I draw your attention to an article I did some time ago in
"The Rules of Engagement story in the Vietnam-Laos Wars" if you would like to learn more."


On one mission, the pilot needed to refuel but had to draw that fuel from a probe-and-drogue tanker rather than a boom type with which they were familiar. This pilot had never hooked up with a probe-and-drogue system and there was some risk that two aircraft would have to return to base instead of moving on to their targets. Good airmanship however prevailed and the pilot successfully refueled, his first time ever with that system.


The F-105 was built to handle both systems. Here you see the F-105's refueling probe to attach to the drogue. However, about 95 percent of F-105 air-to-air refueling were with the boom that inserts into the aircraft on top of the fuselage forward of the cockpit.


Normally, with the boom, the F-105 would pull up to the refueling aircraft from directly behind; with the probe and drogue, he would normally sit off to the side.

The flight lead had to chew this pilot out for failing to let the others know about this issue, but then flight lead congratulated him for a job well done.


One F-105 pilot, Craig White, has said the only time he recalled getting a drogue was when they were flying with the EB-66 which only had the drogue system. This photo shows an EB-66 hooking up to the drogue from a KC-135 tanker. He said guys would some times miss the drogue, then get the hose wrapped around the probe. He said he always got his probe, "but it was a battle, believe me." White said you would have to position your probe that is to go into that drogue basket at about the 10 o'clock position because once you got close the air stream would move the drogue over and you would have to hurry and stick your probe in there!

Most of the pilots at one time or another would come down with the “Thai crud,” diarrhea and stomach cramps, usually lasting about 24 hours, bad enough to ground them.


Krone saw one aircraft “flaming out” shortly after takeoff. His engine caught fire, he tried an air-start, a “sheet of flame longer than the airplane shot out of the tailpipe and kept burning,” so he had to bail out. He was picked up by a Korat helicopter. The term “flameout” is usually used for any failure in a turbine engine, but its technical meaning is more narrow: "power loss not associated with a mechanical failure, caused by the extinction of the flame in the combustion engine. Such extinction can result from the loss of air, fuel or heat from continuously burning fuel." Sometimes the pilot can restart the engine, sometimes they can glide to a safe landing, other times they crash. This photo is of a F-15 experiencing a starboard engine flameout during an air show. He had two engines so he was in good shape to bring it around and land.

Pilots did have to wrestle with rationalizing what they were doing. Back home one could approach the issue academically. However, dropping bombs on a target was a whole different perspective. There was satisfaction from doing a mission well, and flying separate from the battlefield made it easier than being on the ground in the fight. Having to work as a team with a complex aircraft against tough targets in tough flying conditions would also cause the mind to stay busy on other questions. And there were always the butterflies especially before the flight. Each pilot had to approach the problem in his own way. As a general rule, pilots found their missions to be interesting and challenging. Their minds were set on performing the mission well, achieving their task objectives. The F-105 itself was a handful, a complicated aircraft flying complicated missions at high speeds and in formations.

I’d like to comment briefly on the matter of complicated missions. Robert S. Deas, writing the book "Two Days of Rolling Thunder,” made an acute comment:

“The mission: the cold, hard fact of life that has an underlying influence on everything you do these days (is the mission) … The problem of course is that even though you appreciate the hell out of a clearly defined mission statement, its simplicity belies the complexity of its execution.”


It's like a football coach using the chalkboard to describe a play. That's one thing. Executing that play on the field is altogether different. I'll remind you of the mission flown against the thermal power plant employing 108 aircraft, each with his own job. The choreography for that must have been really something. And I suspect it was done without practice.

Weather was a huge challenge. They flew through rain, multiple cloud layers to fairly high altitudes obscuring the targets, and severe thunderstorms were usually encountered on the way to the target, or on the way home.


Most of the pilots had never encountered the kind of threat environment they saw while over NVN and Laos. This is a photo of Viet Cong operating a 12.7 mm heavy machine gun, made in the USSR. It could be used to support ground forces or as an AAA weapon. There was a plethora of different kinds of AAA weapons they could use; AAA presented the F-105 its greatest challenge.

You will recall they had been training while in the US and were then sent to war without the benefit of learning from any experience by those who went ahead of them; the 469th TFS was among the first to fly combat over the NVN. As a result, they did not have a good grasp of what tactics to employ until they could get some missions under their belts and compare notes after the flights. Fortunately, during this early period of war MiGs did not pose a serious problem. Krone said it appeared the MiGs remained in their sanctuary areas.

They also carried different ordnance, often day to day, depending on what their target was. That in turn required them to adjust their tactics. On one mission Krone’s flight carried canisters filled with propaganda leaflets.

Missions were often aborted due to foul weather, or missions were re-tasked to different jobs while in the air. Often they were diverted to support rescues for other downed pilots. Such rescues, known as RESCAPS, themselves were complicated. Sit back and imagine working in unfamiliar areas, always ready to attack targets on the ground threatening the downed pilot. Further, they had to avoid the many different kinds of aircraft flying in the area, make way for the in-bound rescue helicopters, assure they were protected while making the rescues, and at the same time listen to radio frequencies filled with many conversations among all those involved. In such an instance, the pilots departed Korat with an attack plan and often had to totally change mindset and tactics midstream.


While all the pilots went to survival school, getting shot down and spending time on the ground brings forth a whole new set of challenges. On one mission Bob Grier was hit by enemy fire and ejected close to a Viet Cong troop area (Krone was still calling them Viet Minh, the name used when fighting the French). These enemy advanced on Grier rapidly. When the rescue helicopter arrived and lowered the anchor (opens to a seat), Grier could not open it so he just wrapped himself around it and the chopper crew brought him up as enemy fire whistled by him.

On another mission, Lt. Ken Thomas was hit at about 9,000 ft. traveling at about 400 knots. His aircraft “quit flying pretty violently.” He had lost his hydraulic system and his engine quickly overheated. He tried to point the aircraft to a location where he thought his chances were the best for ejection. He ejected just as the aircraft inverted and he blew out of the aircraft almost vertically downward.

  • Thomas noted he ejected over the NVN side of a ridge, but while parachuting down he was hit by an updraft which carried him about two miles over to the Laotian side of the ridge. He kept his seat attached as he knew he would land in trees, and surely he did. The bottom of his seat pack struck a branch. He lost his two canteens by the force of the ejection and went without water for the duration. The rescue chopper could not get to him.


  • Thomas said there were high winds up on the mountainous and rugged terrain, with peaks rising to 6,000 ft. Pilots in his flight circled overhead, and A-1E Sandies came in within about 35 minutes. An HH-3C arrived about 25 minutes later, tried to get at him but the winds nearly forced the helicopter into a ridge. The HH-3C tried four times to get to him but could not do it. He was instructed to climb up a hill to a more clear area in the morning. In the mean time, he would have to remain overnight on the ground in a desolate area. My guess is it can get mighty lonely out there. This photo is of a Marine trying to climb to an area where he could be rescued by a helicopter.
  • A HH-43 Pedro came in the next day to try, but also could not get at Thomas. Finally, after 25 hours on the ground, after about a 10 mile walk, a HH-3C helicopter supported by A-1E Sandies came in and picked him up, and took him to Nakhon Phanom (NKP) RTAFB. This HH-3C was the same one that came to him on the first day.

Regrettably, on another mission Lt. Thomas was hit by AAA over NVN about 55 miles north of Hanoi, he ejected, his opened parachute was observed, he was not, and all contact with him was lost. Krone said the shoot-down area was too far for SAR helicopters to go. He was listed as POW/MIA but his remains were received in August 1985. He is now listed as KIA.


Aircraft malfunctions of course did occur. Krone talked about January 28, 1966. He said:

“Gordie Lewis pulled out of a dive bomb pass with three bombs on the centerline rack and the rack pulled off taking half of both bomb bay doors with it, and mangling one side of the tail. He had a no-release on a bomb on the wing tip and landed with it. Tony Gangol had a hydraulic failure followed by a no-chute landing, and Smitty landed with one strut fully extended and one low so he looked like a drunken sailor going down the runway. All turned out well but it was an interesting series of events … Takhli lost three airplanes that week - one landed with an armed bomb aboard (no one here can figure out why), and one had an unsafe gear, which collapsed and the airplane ran off the runway. The pilot jumped out and ran away before the bomb blew up.”

In late January 1966, new pilots, mostly lieutenants, began coming in and the older ones left. So the squadron faced scheduling problems integrating the new pilots in, exposing them to the “easier missions” first, and the squadron kept them flying on the wingman’s position. A large turnover was expected in late April and May. Weather improved during this period of rotations which gave the newer pilots a lot of good experience quickly.

The matter of the F-105's design for a nuclear mission - the question of survivability and vulnerabilities

So how does a big Thud of an aircraft like the F-105 get shot down by ground fire?

The first problem is we don't know what kind of ground fire hit Sanders' F-105. The USAF used the term "ground fire" frequently to describe aircraft losses, so frequently some question its accuracy. I can say many F-105s are listed as lost due to ground fire, many of which happened over Laos.

I have mentioned that the F-105 was designed for a nuclear mission, high speed, low altitude, one bomb, get in, drop your load, and get out. The Air Force at the time the Indochina War broke out had not envisioned a fight like that one. Kenneth Werrell, writing "Did USAF Technology Fail in Vietnam" for the Spring 1998 edition of
Airpower Journal, wrote this:

"Vietnam was not what the Air Force envisioned as its next conflict. Thinking in terms of a massive nuclear exchange, the airmen planned, equipped, and trained for nuclear war. In fairness, this was the direction from above, and it did give the United States a formidable offensive force and effective deter-rent (Strategic Air Command) against Communist aggression. However, this emphasis not only put the other services at a disadvantage, it also crippled other Air Force missions. Consequently, the Air Force story in Vietnam is how an air force designed for one kind of war performed in a drastically different one.

"it was the Air Force’s primary strike aircraft during the decade of the 1960s and what the Air Force had when the Vietnam War began. It flew three-quarters of the Air Force’s strike missions during Rolling Thunder, the American strategic bombing campaign against North Vietnam between 1965 and 1968.

"The F-105 did not fare well in combat. The Thunder chief served as a fighter-bomber but was limited by its avionics designed for nu-clear, not conventional, missions. Ironically, the bomb bay was used to carry a fuel tank, not bombs. At low level it was the fastest aircraft of the war, but was at a disadvantage in air- to- air combat because of its lack of maneuverability.

"The F-105 was neither as rugged nor as survivable as its World War II predecessor, the P-47, which was rightly celebrated for its toughness. The Thunderchief was designed to fight a nuclear war in which the delivery of one nuclear weapon at low altitude and high speed was all that was required. Little thought was given to a campaign consisting of hundreds of missions extending over years. Therefore, survivability was not a major design consideration; ruggedness, redundant systems, armor, and the like were not priority items. In fact, some survivabi ity factors were traded off to enhance other performance."

Jack Broughton's
Thud Ridge pointed out that the hydraulic and fuel systems were placed for easy access by maintenance crews with very little thought to hardening the systems. Broughto also noted that the attitude on the day was that AAA fire and air-to-air combat were things of the past of the past. The net result was that even minor damage could cause you to catch fire or to lose your control systems due to your vital fluids draining out.

Carl Hoffman, writing for Air Space Magazine, wrote about work done by Robert E. Ball, sown here, Distinguished Professor, Emeritus, at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. He quoted Ball saying:

"There was very little attention paid during the design of any aircraft of that era (Vietnam) to the damage that enemy guns or guided missiles might do.”

Hoffman then went on to say:

"Increasingly sophisticated high-altitude surface-to-air missiles forced pilots to fly low, which made them vulnerable to small arms fire."

Hoffman then wrote about comments made by Chuck Myers, shown here, the former director of air warfare in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He quoted Myers saying:

"All of the planes flying in Vietnam were designed for a completely different environment … The F-105 was designed as a low-altitude nuclear-strike airplane to drop bombs and leave. You didn’t worry about bullets. But those planes were terribly vulnerable. We sent them into the conventional [warfare] morass of Vietnam, and when those SOBs got hit with bullets they came apart.”

I mentioned the vulnerability of the F-105's hydraulic lines. Aircraft hydraulic systems are a challenge to design engineers. Hydraulics come into play with primary flight controls, landing gear, nose wheel steering, rudders, and emergency hydraulic-driven electrical generators. Hydraulics also are used on gun drives, weapons-bay doors, and hydraulic-motor-driven-fan heat exchangers.


The problem for the nuclear designed conventionally used F-105 was that the secondary hydraulic system originally was close to the primary system, which made it extremely vulnerable to enemy fire. Let's focus on this for a moment. I asked about these lines and was told by an experienced F-105 veteran:

"(This photo shows) the hydraulic lines (lower left) because the bomb bay doors are removed. When the doors are installed they cover up everything behind them. Hydraulic lines are the small metal lines. The larger metal tube you see just above them contains electrical wires and the big black tube just above that contains hot air piped directly from the jet engine. This is the hot air that is used to power the ATM which provides AC electrical power and Utility Hydraulic pressure."

The issue here is that these hydraulic lines were too close together, and they were not well protected.

Kenneth P. Werrell, writing "Did USA Technology Fail in Vietnam" for the Spring 1998
Airpower Journal, wrote:


B28IN nuclear bomb carried by the F-105 "Thud." This was a bomb built for high altitude free-fall or retarded (parachute), airburst or contact, and low altitude lay-down.

"The Thunderchief was designed to fight a nuclear war in which delivery of one nuclear weapon at low altitude and high speed was all that was required. Little thought was given to campaigns consisting of hundreds of missions extending over years. Therefore, survivability was not a major design consideration: ruggedness, redundant systems, armor, and the like were not priority items. In fact, some survivability factors were traded off to enhance other performance. Two such instances proved critical. First, the fighter's two sets of hydraulic lines were run close together, apparently to ease manufacture and maintenance, so that a hit on one could easily take out the other. A loss of hydraulic pressure caused the stabilizer to lock in the full 'up' position, pushing the nose down. Second, the internal and bomb-bay fuel tanks were not self-sealing … At the very least, even a small caliber hit could cause a leak. This helps explain why the F-105 was so vulnerable to fire and explosion."

Werrell does acknowledge that by mid-1965 modifications began on the hydraulic systems "so that if the hydraulic system were hit, the pilot could mechanically lock the horizontal stabilizer at an optimum setting" after which he could play with the wing flaps and engine power to fly out of the immediate area before he had to eject. I'm no pilot, but that doesn't sound like a great fix to me. But that's what the man said. He also said self-sealing tanks and bomb-bay fire extinguisher modifications were also added. Werrell did not give the F-105 aircraft high marks for the "role in which it found itself…a mediocre performer in difficult conditions … (though) it served honorably and capably." I might also add that it is difficult to know how many F-105s were so modified. My gut instinct is the modification process was probably slow since the aircraft were in such high demand, especially during Rolling Thunder.

This concern seems to be confirmed in reading pilots' accounts of taking hits; they frequently found it very hard or impossible to control their damaged aircraft. Even a small caliber bullet could cause a major and catastrophic leak from hydraulic systems and fuel tanks. It was quite vulnerable to fire and explosion.

All that said, I have seen several expert reports, one of which summed them all up:

"Most of the dangerous bugs that had plagued the type (F-105D) early on had been worked out, and the Thud could take a lot of punishment and come back home."

I ran across a web site focused on Takhli RTAFB that featured some experiences of SSgt Ervin Davis, shown here leaning on an AC-130 gunship, who was assigned to a commando unit at Udorn RTAFB farther to the north, across the Mekong River from Vientiane, Laos. Davis was part of several groups called "Emergency Recovery Teams," trained to disarm and download battle damaged aircraft. Udorn was a frequent recovery base for battle damaged F-105s that could not make it back to home base, so Davis was busy. He talks about the resiliency of the F-105 in very descriptive, "GI speak" terms that only GIs know. Here is an excerpt:

"I was not at Takhli but I served your birds at Udorn.

"We frequently chased smoke bellowing F-105s down the runway or paralleled them on the flightline to get them when they stopped or even still on a roll, so we could down load anyway possible anything that goes 'BOOM'.

"F-105s came back so blown to Hell that more costly F-4's even a 10th as damaged would NEVER make it home ! If a bird was on fire, my crew had 'our own rules' that I influenced into creation, as frankly the importance was removing explosives NOT following Air Force regulations, so 'no sweat' we'd chase the bird (USAF, Army, Marine, Navy) then jerk stuff (bombs, missiles, rockets etc) free, hussel-hussel-hussel to lay it in the grass beside the runway, or roll it or scoot it there, then run back to get more, so the Fire Department could finish up and the crane pick up the damaged bird to haul it away so the runway was free for the next bird to land. We use to get evil looks from the Chief of Maintenance, Wing and Base Commanders, and shocked looks from pilots seeing us lay or scoot bombs etc into the grass like speed deamons,.... but our crew was the FASTEST and BESTEST and everyone was always amazed and always had compliments about our unbelievable speed, and complaints about our ILLEGAL munitions handling procedures .....but mostly, after most folks saw us in action a few times, no one said much and when they did we knew they HAD TO to cover themselves and didn't really mean it ........... and if that wasn't enough to get us catching Hell all the time, there we were freaking out the Control Tower Jocks as we dodged landing aircraft for the next couple hours after the birds were removed, as we'd still be hanging around with an MJ-1 and chains hauling bombs and missiles from the grassy sides of the runway, de-fuzing, etc etc etc

F-105 crash landing at Udorn 1967

"I've seen many of those battle damaged bird sights, .....and it seemed most FREQUENT that an F-105 would land blowing a tire eating half the metal wheel away while shooting blowing sparks down the runway, or sliding into the grass at 100 MPH or so ....... I'll never forget that one even landed BLIND with oil covering its windshield after being shot in the front section and taking a direct hit in the front canopy glass.......but one of the strangest memories was when an F-105 landed with a missile stuck into its tail!!! YES, you read correctly, this F-105 came in boiling black smoke, the rear side of the engine area with flames and so hot several FEET were eaten away by fire................. and that damned missile WEDGED in between the engine afterburner and the skin of the bird..... normally maybe a three inch gap now swelled around seven inches in diameter."

The Air Force Flight Dynamics Laboratory studied USAF fixed wing aircraft losses in Southeast Asia combat during the period 1962-1973, issuing its report in 1975. One part caught my eye:

"Although the F-105 may not die as rapidly as other aircraft when hit, it does die more frequently per combat sortie flown. In addition, documented instances of heavily damaged F-105s safely returning to base are rare. Roughly one out of every four F-105s hit in combat will crash, and the remaining three usually sustain only minor damage. It was, however, this capacity to die slowly that contributed to a high crew member survival rate noted for the F-105."

I did see one "war story," however, where three F-105s were struck by surface-to-air missiles and the pilots managed to limp them to safe landings.


This is probably a NVA propaganda photo, but the point does come home. They would fire their automatic weapons at low flying American aircraft. They would fire machine guns. I have learned from various technical reports that the F-105 was vulnerable to gunfire, even by an AK-47, so it's not out of the question.


Again, probably a propaganda photo, but here again, his weapon is larger than an AK-47, though I do not know what type it is.


And yet another even larger weapon, I think perhaps a 37 mm anti-aircraft artillery (AAA), definitely a lethal weapon.


Most US fighter aircraft lost in this war were lost to enemy AAA. This is a photo of the M1939 37mm AAA gun, which for a long time was the workhorse for the NVA.


The most effective way of avoiding that kind of fire was to fly above it or at very low altitude. I have seen pilots write they flew as low as 200 ft to make t harder for the enemy to shoot them down. Below 2,000 feet, small arms were the most serious threat. I understand that most rules of engagement required US fighters to stay above 4,500 ft., the maximum effective altitude of small arms fire. But I know from talking to pilots that they flew far below that limit often

The Air Force Flight Dynamics Laboratory study also highlighted the following about the F-105:

  • The top three causes for a F-105 crash were fire-explosion (44%), flight control damage (18%) and engine damage (17%). As I mentioned, if it had a drawback, it was with her control hydraulics, easy to damage leaving the aircraft without control.
  • Of 51 F-105s that went down in Laos, only eight pilots were killed. Most (28) were rescued, though 14 went missing. Just over 50 percent of lost F-105s were hit by AAA, though 20 percent were lost to unknown ground fire. The F-105 had the highest crew member survival rate (65%).
  • About 90% of the time all combat aircraft were hit by enemy grind fire the aircraft was engaged with its target. In NVN and Laos, the F-105 suffered almost twice the loss rate to ground fire as the F-4 Phantom. However, considering strike missions only, the F-105 loss rate in NVN to ground fire was three times higher than the F-4, and four times as high in Northern Laos.

The strafing pass for an F-105


Just a moment on F-105 strafing. A strafing run is one where the pilot uses his cannon, the M61 Vulcan 20 mm cannon, as shown in the photo. In the case of the F-105, a Thunderchief Indochina war veteran told me that "compared to other weapons delivery, strafing was used relatively little and was avoided in heavily defended areas. When strafing was required, we'd use high angle strafe above 15 degrees and as high as 30 degrees. This was in attempt to stay high and not get in the weeds with the small arms fire."

He said:

"The strafing maneuver involves rolling in from around 3, 500 feet and diving at the target; the pepper (sight aiming point) starts below the target and tracks across the ground up to it. Just as it reaches the target you start firing and momentarily bunt the stick forward to keep the pepper on the target (for only) microseconds. You then release the trigger and pull 4 'G's to recover from the dive. At the low angle of 15 degrees, you bottom out between 200 and 100 feet. At the higher 30 degree, you start your recovery around 2,300 feet in order to not bottom out lower than 500 feet. (The pilot would remain) at very low altitude a very short time; seconds.

"Once he rolls out in the dive, he is most vulnerable as he is now on a steady trajectory until he starts his pull up. Of course he is only on this steady trajectory for a few seconds, maybe around 8 to 10 seconds max. That is the way we initially trained to strafe. In the late '60s, we started training using curvilinear descending attacks. This type of attack compounds the ground fires tracking because you never fly a steady trajectory. You start your attack roll in earlier and fly a descending turning pattern so your trajectory is constantly changing in a curving approach and you only roll out wings level microseconds before the pepper reaches the target. This type of attack naturally is more difficult to conduct but very doable with proper training and also more survivable in the low altitude environment. Since you are writing about (an event that) occurred in August 1969, it would be very probable he (Sanders) was using this technique.

"More trigger time is not the answer. First, it's impossible to maintain the sight (the pepper) on a non-moving ground target much longer than a second. Secondly, the barrels will burn out with long trigger times. High fire rate is the correct approach. Get as many bullets out on the target in the shortest amount of time. About the only justification for multiple strafing passes is in the Close Air Support mission; otherwise, you're just asking to get bagged."

I'll add that strafing is dangerous because of the low altitude. The F-105 had speed going for it, making it hard for ground fire to attack. But most fighters are their most vulnerable to AAA and ground fire when they pull away from the strafe and climb out. Their profile can present a larger target.

This same pilot commented on "ground fire" as well:

"Lots of 105s were lost to ground fire but it was no more vulnerable than other fighters. In fact, it had an advantage over most fighters because it had a dry wing (no fuel in the wing) which is a relative large area as a target. I suspect he got hit and started burning and stayed with the plane too long trying to get out of the target area. Of course this is only my opinion. F-105's did not immediately explode upon getting hit unless it was a direct hit in a crucial location by a large AAA mm gun. The likelihood this was the case at this low altitude is extremely low."

I will talk more about this "ground fire" issue later, as well as questions about his still being in his ejection seat when found in the tree.


The coordinates I have for his crash site are 19-20N 103-40E. I highlighted the town of Phonsavan primarily because the town is located on the eastern side of the highly contested PDJ. I further highlighted Route 7 because that was a major ground route in the Laotian Civil War. In the upper right of the photo, too hard to read, is the name of the province, Xiangkhouang.


Xiangkhouang province was the scene of extensive ground battles and a province the US heavily bombed during that war. For much of the Laotian Civil War it was a Pathet Lao stronghold. This region was largely owned by the Pathet Lao communist insurgents working with the NVA in the area. This graphic produced by
National Geographic gives an idea of the intensity of the bombing in the area where Sanders was lost. Bombing in the north concentrated on the PDJ.

The trees in Laos

I would like to talk a bit about pilots bailing out of their aircraft and getting caught in the trees.


While missions over Laos were not as risky as those over the NVN, pilots knew the Pathet Lao did not take prisoners. This photo shows a group of them, much like the Hmong, mostly poor farmers fighting against the US-backed central government.

One FAC pilot commented on the Pathet Lao:

"Pilots (who had bailed out in Laos) were machine-gunned while hanging from trees in their parachute harnesses.”


Trees in Laos were at least double canopy. This photo gives you a sense for the enormity of the trees in Laos.

Major Charles Brownlee, shown here, flew F-105Ds for the 357th TFS. On December 24, 1968, he bailed out over Laos, successfully ejecting. Other pilots in his fight saw his parachute reply, followed it to the ground, and saw it get caught in the dense jungle canopy of trees. Attempts to contact Brownlee by radio were not successful, and there was no emergency beeper heard from his radio.


Rescue helicopters had been orbiting in the area in case they were needed. The crews aboard one HH3E, callsign "Jolly Green," immediately responded. The photo shows a HH3C version of the Jolly Green. The rescue aircraft came under heavy fire when it neared Brownlee's location, it was getting dark, so they all left.

The next morning a HH3E Jolly Green returned to the site to recover Brownlee. The crew easily spotted his parachute hanging from the trees. However, the helicopter wash blew the parachute and Brownlee to the ground some 70 feet below. The rescue crew then lowered USAF pararescueman (PJ) Charles Douglas “Doug” King, shown here, 100 ft. to the ground. Brownlee appeared lifeless, "inert" according to the PJ. The PJ cut Brownlee from his parachute, and secured him to a rescue device. The rescue crew decided to drag him about 20 feet to reach an open clearing so they could hoist him up, avoiding the trees. Airman King followed along with Brownlee. Just as the rescue crew was ready to hoist both men, the two men on the ground came under heavy enemy fire, and King was wounded. As the helicopter pulled away hoping to execute a rescue, the hoist line became snagged in the trees and broke, dropping both men about 10 ft. to the ground. Then the helicopter came under heavy fire and had to leave. The SAR attempt was abandoned, and both men, Brownlee and King were listed as MIA.

Capt. Larry Mahaffey, a F-105 pilot, was hit over the NVN on November 18, 1965. Prior to ejecting, he flew his disabled aircraft to mountainous terrain, figuring it was safer there for him. His parachute landed in 100-foot high trees. He could not see the ground, decided the enemy, if they were there, would not be able to see him, so he simply remained in the trees. However, when the rescue choppers came, they cold not find him. Mahaffey fired a few flares, the rescue crew spotted him, lowered the penetrator into the "dense mass of limbs and vines," and pulled him aboard.

Capt. Bob Gregory, shown here in his early days, was flying a RF-4C, First Lt. Larry Stutz the co-pilot. Their mission was to follow a bombing raid 25 miles north of Hanoi and photograph the bomb damage for later assessment. They were flying 660 knots at 75 ft. altitude, "barely over the trees," and were hit by ground fire. Both men ejected. Stutz was captured almost immediately after parachuting into a NVN village. Gregory's parachute became snagged in the trees but he plunged to the ground, was knocked unconscious, and later died during imprisonment.


An Air America UH-34 large cargo hauler was shot down in 1963 over Laos. One Lao "Kicker" landed in a tree at night, saw grass not far below him, so he cut himself loose.


He then found that the elephant grass was very high, so he fell 50 ft down a hill.

Major Forrest Fenn, a F-100 pilot with the 85th TFS, ejected after being hit over Laos. The next morning, SAR crews came to rescue him. The helicopter crew let the jungle penetrator down 240 ft. to reach Fenn. He described the ride up as one “through a tangle of breaking limbs, leaves and tree trunks (that) took my breath away."

Rescue crews would encounter difficulties weaving themselves through the trees to get their man, and sometimes their cables broke and they crashed down through the trees themselves. Search and Rescue (SAR) missions were almost always very risky.

The question of Sanders' ejection seat


Regardless of what one sees in the movies, ejections from a fighter aircraft is a very dangerous event and is the option of last choice, last resort. The F-105D had a rocket-propelled ejection seat. A drogue chute on the seat stabilized everything in the air to prevent the seat and pilot from tumbling through the air. The parachute was worn by the pilot and was not part of the seat. The pilot would release his seat's harness while in the air, freeing him from the seat and enabling him to fall free with his chute. He would then pull the rip chord on his own chute. Some pilots were known to have "frozen" in their seats from the shock of the ejection at high speeds, so a system was installed that was supposed to pull the pilot away from the seat by a strap system.

The Hmong found Major Sanders hanging from the trees still attached to his ejection seat.

I do not know why Sanders was still attached to his seat. It is possible his aircraft inverted and he ejected downward straight into the trees. It is also possible he was thrown from his aircraft after it crashed. It is possible his ejection seat failed to separate and that he was either too shocked from the ejection, too injured, or already dead.


I do have one other notion here, however, and I've asked F-105 professionals to comment on it. The photo is of an ACES II Survival Kit Container used on the F-16 and F-15. It attaches to the "seat pan" of the ejection seat.

The "seat pan" was a metal area of the ejection seat strapped a bit like a pan. It and the survival kit and seat cushion are strapped to the pilot. I wonder whether Sanders was strapped to that, called by some pilots the "survival seat," instead of the entire ejection seat. Perhaps the people who found him mistakenly called that the ejection seat. Normally, if a pilot lands in the trees, for example, he would release this seat pan which would hang some 10-15 feet below the pilot on the lanyard. However if he did not release the "survival kit" it would still be attached to him and the chute harness and look like he was sitting on something. The scenario I just described is possible, but the experts who consulted with me have different views about that possibility. When it's all said an done, we don't know what the Hmong saw.

Failure of the ejection seat to separate after ejection is rare, but it has happened. I have tried to find some accounts of incidents that occurred that might have been similar to the one that affected Sanders.

You recall I mentioned the experience of Lt. Ken Thomas, USAF, 469th TFS F-105 pilot. He was hit at about 9,000 ft. traveling at about 400 knots. He ejected just as the aircraft inverted and he blew out of the aircraft almost vertically downward. Thomas kept his seat attached as he knew he would land in trees, and surely he did. The bottom of his seat pack struck a branch. He lost his two canteens by the force of the ejection and went without water for the duration. A rescue chopper picked him up some 25 hours later after earlier unsuccessful tries.

LCdr. William Sullivan, USN was the backstair flying a F-4 Phantom when his aircraft was hit and caught fire. The pilot was losing control and ordered Sullivan to eject. Sullivan pulled the handle but was worried his ejection seat might have been damaged after being hit. His chute did open, though it had a large hole in it, and his ejection seat had not fully separated. He landed in the trees and was knocked unconscious. He was rescued but was bleeding from the ears, he had a severe concussion, singed hands and forearms, a very sore back later found to be three broken vertebrae, all caused from hitting the trees.

Kevin Greely, USAF, was the backseater in an F4E when the aircraft ran off the runway on a formation takeoff. He received an uncommanded out-of-the-envelop ejection and commented he had barely enough altitude for the man-seat separation to occur. He hit the ground before the parachute could even come out of its container.

Lt. Kara Hultgreen, USN crashed her F-14 on approach to the USS Lincoln near San Diego on a routine training mission. She saw she was going to overshoot the landing, aborted the landing and made a succession of errors each of which compounded the other. Her backseater safely ejected. She ejected about 0.4 seconds later, but in that time the aircraft inverted and she ejected straight into the water, dying submerged still strapped to her seat. HUltgreen was the first female carrier-based fighter pilot in the U.S. Navy.

Briefly, the Hmong

I wrote a tory about Hmong history up to the civil war for my sister web site, "Wisconsin Central." It was entitled, "The Hmong, a gallant American ally, a 'people in exile,' a people of dignity." I commend it to you if you wish to obtain historical background about them.

Hmong fighters, 1961

The challenge for the US was to prevent a communist takeover of Laos and prevent the spread of communism to Thailand.

As early as 1957, the CIA, led by a paramilitary specialist named James W. (Bill) Lair, shown here, organized a program to train the fiercely independent ethnic Hmong people living in Laos to become an elite paramilitary force. The US spotted General Vang Pao, a Hmong military leader who commanded the Royal Lao Armed Forces (FAR's, designated RLA by the US) 10th Infantry Battalion on the PDJ, as a top flight candidate to lead the Hmong effort.

The CIA's Civil Air Transport (CAT) remained active in Laos helping to provide US military assistance to the FAR. CAT's name changed to Air America in 1959 and the US introduced a Special Forces Group consisting of 12 mobile training teams, Lt. Colonel Arthur "Bull" Simons, USA in command, shown here. US special forces helped Vang Pao organize a Hmong group to defend the southern perimeter of the PDJ. In 1959, Vang Pao told the US he would marshal Hmong forces to fight the communists so long as the US provided him the needed support. He promised to raise an army 10,000 strong. As a result, CIA sought more air support. Thereafter, CIA introduced helicopters and short take-off-landing (STOL) aircraft. They began supporting the Hmong.

By 1959 Laos was immersed in a full civil war between neutralists, right-wingers, and the Pathet Laos. US support moved heavily toward the right-wingers who were aggressively against the communists. The Thais sent in teams of forces to help. The Soviets supported the neutralists. The right-wingers forced the neutralists to leave the capital, Vientiane.

Xieng Khouang Airport is an airport in Phonsavan, Laos today

In turn, the neutralists moved north to the PDJ and took control of a vital airfield complex in that region, the current airport shown here. The US JCS prepared for war, and even sent a task force by sea from the Philippines. For his part, Eisenhower was determined not to send US ground forces into Laos. Nonetheless, Eisenhower was pleased by this program seeing it as an alternative to US ground forces.

Eisenhower speaking about the "falling domino" on April 7, 1954

It is worth noting that Laos in the early 1960s had emerged as the top foreign policy priority for the US. In April 1954, Eisenhower gave a speech opposing dictatorship, specifically addressed Vietnam, and gave birth to the domino theory. He said:

"Finally, you have broader considerations that might follow what you would call the 'falling domino' principle. You have a row of dominoes set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly. So you could have a beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound influences."

The media in turn coined that the "Domino Theory."

JFKIkeMeeting December 1960
Eisenhower-Kennedy meeting December 6, 1960

Eisenhower, while meeting with newly elected JFK, said the threats to the US in Laos after the French defeat were a greater threat to US national interests than those of Vietnam or Cambodia. He told JFK:

"(Laos is) the key to the entire area of Southeast Asia."

Indeed Eisenhower told Kennedy that he expected Laos to be “the beginning of the loss of most of the Far East.”

JFK told his secretary prior to meeting with Ike:

“I was anxious to get some commitment from the outgoing administration as to how they would deal with Laos which they were handing to us. I thought particularly it would be useful to have some idea as to how prepared they were for intervention.”


So the Hmong began to move into fortified positions throughout the various mountains of the region. More helicopters and STOL aircraft were needed now to provide support. President Kennedy took office and got more such aircraft sent over to Air America. The photo shows President Kennedy discussing Laos during a press conference at the State Department Auditorium, 23 March 1961. As an aside, both Ike and JFK liked special covert operations.


Air America set up an operating base at Udorn RTAFB, Thailand, just south of Vientiane, a base that developed into a major USAF air base for operations over Laos and NVN. This photo shows a Volpar Turboprop Beech 18 on Air America's ramp at Udorn RTAFB in Thailand. The buildings in the background are maintenance hangars.


Then, in 1962, JFK pulled the plug. He was confronted with two lousy solutions: military intervention or a major policy shift seeking a cease-fire and a neutralization of Laos. The US agreed to a "Declaration of the Neutrality of Laos." The agreement was signed in Geneva. Secretary of State Dean Rusk signed for the US. The terms of the agreement called for Prince Souvanna Phouma to be reinstated as Premier of Laos. The agreement agreed to by the U.S. and the Soviet Union temporarily ended civil war in Laos. The US withdrew its nearly 700 military advisers and support staff, and Air America stopped dropping supplies to the Hmong.

The Pathet Lao agreed to the cease-fire offer.


The declaration was a farce. It gave the NVA time to conduct an offensive in southern Laos, capture Tchepone and extend the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The NVA withdrew 15 troops and told Laos they had complied with the withdrawal. But CIA estimated that some 7,000 NVA troops remained in Laos and \ ramped up their combat operations against the Government of Laos and the Hmong. This photo shows how many of the supplies were moved over the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Hanoi continued sending new troops into Laos through 1963. As a result, JFK approved CIA increasing the size of the Hmong army, now headquartered at Long Tieng, LS20A. By year's end, the Hmong force grew to 20,000. They stepped up a guerrilla campaign against the NVA and Pathet Lao. Air America also resumed and increased flight operations.

KlusmannCharlesRF8 copy
In March 1964, the Pathet Lao and NVA launched a major offensive against the PDJ and took control of it. Lyndon Johnson (LBJ) was now the president and he ordered Navy and USAF reconnaissance over the area. The US had no rescue forces available, a Navy reconnaissance jet was shot down, and Air America launched a search and rescue (SAR) operation. The SAR effort failed, Lt Charles Klusmann was captured but escaped, and Air American pilots, not trained or equipped for SAR operations, took over the job. Th photo shows Klusmann sitting in the cockpit of his RF-8.


Life in Southeast Asia and in Washington became much more complicated in August 1964 when NVN patrol boats allegedly attacked the US Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin. They allegedly attacked again on August 4. The net result was that Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution authorizing LBJ to assist any Southeast Asian country jeopardized by communist aggression.. Eisenhower had sent 900 advisers to the RVN and JFK increased that to 16,000 by November 1963. This is a photo of LBJ announcing the Gulf of Tonkin incident.

All together, these events turned US attention away from Laos and to North Vietnam.

Some Brief History

I have written much about this history for other stories: