Fighter Squadron 103 - A History

Fitron 103 was commissioned at Cecil Field, Florida on 1 May 1952 as a carrier based, all weather interceptor unit as part of Carrier Air Group 10. With their gull winged FG-1D Corsair aircraft, the squadron's first Commanding Officer, LCDR. G.T.Lillich, (who was known to carry around a baseball bat) took a design of a cloverleaf pierced by an arrow over a baseball bat as his squadron's insignia. And so the "Sluggers" were born.

The squadron first made a deployment aboard the USS LAKE CHAMPLAIN & USS CORAL SEA in late 1952 & early 1953. Not long thereafter, in March of 1953, the squadron transitioned to the revolutionary swept-wing F-9F Cougar, the Navy's first supersonic fighter aircraft. In 1954, when Cinerama motion pictures made their debut, VF-103 was selected to play a starring role for the aviation portion of the film "Cinerama Holiday". The Cinerama film process (shot in 70mm and the predecessor to todays IMAX) was expensive to produce and only two films were ever made using that process. The first, "This is Cinerama", debuted in 1952. "Cinerama Holiday", starring the Sluggers, premiered in February of 1955 and became the highest grossing film of that year.

In 1956, onboard the CORAL SEA, the squadron was in the Eastern Mediterranean during the "Suez Crisis" and participated in an air show for their Majesties King Paul and Queen Frederika of Greece during their visit to the USS CORAL SEA. VF-103 was one of the early adaptors (1957) of the F-8 Crusader , the Navy's new fast moving, high flying performance fighter aircraft and in 1958 the squadron and their Crusaders were part of CVG-10 onboard the USS FORRESTAL in the Mediterranean during the "Lebanon Crisis". In May of 1959, the squadron moved from Cecil Field to NAS Oceana, Virginia as part of CVG-8, where conversion to the F8U-2 began. In the same year, the Sluggers were the first operational squadron to receive the MK-4 full pressure suit & all squadron pilots commenced high-altitude familiarization flights in the new "Moon Suit".

In January 1960 while operating in the Mediterranean as part of the SIXTH Fleet, VF-103 established a record Crusader cruise. Over 2750 hours of flight time was logged and a total of 1590 arrested landings were made onboard FORRESTAL, with all pilots passing the "Centurian" mark of 100 carrier landings.

For three consecutive years (1961-1963) the Sluggers were awarded the AIRLANT Battle Efficiency Award as the outstanding Fighter Squadron in the fleet. Two concurrent CNO Safety Awards in 1961 & 1962 made the squadron one of the very few to ever win so many awards in so short a time span. 1963 saw the squadron upgrade to the F-8E and that summer made their only cruise with these aircraft.

VF-103 was again on the cutting edge of avaition when they were selected as one of the Navy's first squadrons to upgrade to the new F-4 Phantom II during the summer of 1965 and flew their new aircraft to Oceana on 1 September. On that same day, VF-103 was assigned to Carrier Airwing Three after a six year tour with CVW-8, changing tailcodes from AK to AJ. December found the Sluggers enroute to NAS Cecil Field for initial CARQUALS (carrier qualifications) & for their first look at their new home at sea, the USS SARATOGA . During VF-103's first deployment aboard SARATOGA, CDR. Eugene Bezore became the squadron's 13th Commanding Officer and the new Executive Officer, CDR. Jesse McKnight reported aboard. In early 1967, Navy Astronaut LCDR. Roger Chaffey was killed in the Apollo launchpad tragedy. The squadron was selected to provide the ceremonial honors at the burial of the fallen comrade. To commerate his passing, at 1300 hours 31 January 1967, three VF-103 Phantoms flew low across Washington D.C. and Arlington Chapel in the traditional missing wingman formation as the casket of LCDR. Chaffey came to rest on the caisson. VF-103 was particularly honored to render this tribute, since CDR. John Young, one of the nation's first Astronauts, is a former "Slugger".

In mid 1967, the squadron was again back at sea on the SARATOGA and following that Med cruise, SARATOGA entered the yard for extensive overhaul and remained there until January of 1969. During this extended period the Sluggers enjoyed considerable "beach time" with short deployments to Key West, Florida; Fallon, Nevada, for air-to-ground weapons delivery training; and NAS Miramar for refresher "CARQUALS" (carrier qualifications) aboard the USS KITTY HAWK. Four of the Blue Angels came to VF-103 in 1968 where the Sluggers provided them transition familiarization training, including their first ride in the Phantom, as the Blue Angels were soon to receive their new F-4J's.

Prior to the Med cruise in 1969, the squadron, while at Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico, set three new AFWAR records firing Sparrow and Sidewinder missiles. During the cruise, VF-103 was selected to host the United Kingdom's first F-4 squadron. The "Omegas" of Fighter Squadron 892, under the tutelage of the Sluggers, learned to effectively operate their new Phantoms off the SARATOGA's deck. Many new modifications were derived from this program which were incorporated into U.S. as well as British Phantoms. On 24 June 1969, a VF-103 F-4 Phantom performed the first operational "hands off" carrier arrested landing using the new AN/SPN-42 Automatic Carrier Landing System (ACLS). This was performed by Slugger LT. Dean Smith & LTJG. James Sherlock.

In 1970 the squadron won its third CNO Safety Award. As the Middle East Crisis flared up that year, VF-103 was put on standby to provide protection to U.S. forces. For their part in helping to maintain stability at that time, the squadron was presented the Meritorious Unit Commendation.

In 1971, again deployed with CVW-3 onboard SARATOGA, the squadron participated in an experimental carrier concept designed to test the operational compatibility of attack and ASW (Anti-Submarine Warfare) squadrons. A Squadron Fire Control Technician (AQ) recalls an August 1971 incident during that Med Cruise. "CVA 60 was anchored off Piraeus Greece. I was awakened one morning to “General Quarter, General Quarters. Flooding in the Number 3 Main Machinery Room. The ship had taken on a great deal of water in the starboard quarter and was listing badly. The decision was made to launch aircraft to lighten the load and to redistribute the weight. Since the carrier was dead in the water, the catapults were tweaked to provide max pull and the aircraft were not supposed to need afterburner since the ship was bow on to the Acropolis and all that Greek antiquity."

"One of the pilots, LCDR Vince Lesh (who later was shot down over Vietnam in 1972) put on a personal airshow. After the cat shot, he dipped to a very low altitude and went into full A/B. He accelerated until he was over the beach-which was crowded with people watching the spectacle of carrier launches just outside the harbor. LCDR Lesh then made a high G turn until he was heading back to the ship. Still at low altitude, he went inverted until he was abeam the ship when he stood it on its tail and did victory rolls while going straight up. This incident is described by the man who was CAG on that cruise ADM (later) Paul Gilchrist in his book Feet Wet. (His recollection differs from mine in several minor details.)."

In early 1972, the USS SARATOGA and her attached squadrons of CVW-3, just back from a "shakedown cruise", were re-activated on twenty four hours notice. Due to our country's resumption of bombing operations in North Viet Nam, it became necessary for the Sluggers to add their names to those who have engaged in aerial combat for the United States. VF-103 was going to war. As an east coast ship and being too big to navigate the Panama canal, the SARATOGA had to "take the long way" and traverse the Atlantic around the horn of Africa to get to the Western Pacific. This thirty day crossing gave Fitron 103's air and maintenance crews time to prepare themselves and their Phantoms for the squadron's "baptism of fire." After a brief stop in Subic Bay, Phillippines (to load ammunition and supplies- and to experience the many wonders of the town of Olongapo) VF-103 and SARATOGA on 18 May 1972, found itself off the coast of South Viet Nam in the Tonkin Gulf.

Since the squadron began their combat operations in the less hostile "Dixie Station" off South Viet Nam, they honed their fighting skills to a sharp edge- for the days to come would put them over North Viet Nam and into one of the most fierce anti-aircraft defenses ever established in the history of warfare. Aircrews became intimately familiar with bombing techniques and maintenance personnel established methods for quick repair and reliable armament and weapons systems. All squadron aircraft were to be "up"- no "hangar queens" were allowed.

Once SARATOGA moved north to "Yankee Station", the squadron was soon ranging the length and width of North Viet Nam. VF-103 and AIRWINGTHREE were soon striking every conceivable target. Supply depots, anti-aircraft artillery sites, surface to air (SAM) missile sites and interdiction points were just a few of the many enemy supply and defenses destroyed. Over Haiphong, VF-103 led an AIRWINGTHREE Alpha strike, which produced one of the most devestating bombing raids of the war. In addition, Sluggers provided combat support to AIRWINGTHREE by flying MIGCAPS, BARCAPS, Photo Reconnaissance Escort and standing Ready Alert. It was while manning one of these 5 minute alerts on the night of 10 August 1972 that VF-103's LCDR. Gene Tucker and his RIO (Radar Intercept Officer), LTJG. Bruce Edens bagged a MIG-21 with a Sparrow missile. It was the first and only night MIG kill of the Viet Nam war.

Excerpted from the Squadron/Signal Publications book "USN Phantoms in Combat " by Lou Drendel, Tucker details the engagement :

"The first indication that anything was happening was a loud "Launch the Alert Five" over the 5MC (flight deck PA system) and 1MC (ships PA system) at just about sunset. I was sitting on the starter tractor, drafting proposed changes to the squadron's Standard Operating Procedures. Bruce was in the back seat, strapped in, as we were supposed to be. He started yelling at me to get in and get the bird started. Ever since early in my first Phantom squadron tour, I have done a "scramble" start each and every start, so I was well prepared for the simultaneous strap in and fast start I had to do right then. I was quickly ready to taxi from my spot just aft of the island to the catapult.

Because of the requirement to be able to launch the Alert Five fighters immediately from any catapult, in any sea state or natural wind condition, we were not loaded with a full bag of fuel. As I was spotted on the catapult, I was ordered to take on a full bag of fuel, since there was no longer an active contact and the ship was making plenty of wind to launch me. I didn't know it at the time, but later found out that the MiG, which had been tracked from the vicinity of Kep on a southerly track, had disappeared from the scopes in the vicinity of Vinh.

We were loaded with two AIM-7E Sparrows on the aft fuselage stations, two AIM-9D Sidewinders on the wing stations, a centerline fuel tank, and empty TERs on the outboard wing stations (the F-4s had been doing a lot of bombing and we frequently left the airplane configured for bombing missions with TERs on the wing stations.)

As I completed fueling, the MiG reappeared in the vicinity of Vinh, and I was given a vector and launched. I stayed right on the deck as I made a hard starboard turn off the cat to a westerly heading, accelerating in aferburner to 450 knots before starting to climb. I had launched shortly after sunset. I was given a couple of bogie calls... he was west of me at some 70 miles.. and then he disappeared from the controllers scope again. Bruce and I were disappointed as we were told to max endure and take up a CAP station at 15,000 feet in the vicinity of Hon Mat Island just off the Son Ca river mouth east of Vinh. The VF-31 F-4 launched shortly after we did, followed by a VA-75 KA-6D tanker. The tanker reached our vicinity and Bruce and I joined him and commenced topping off ..just in case. It was completely dark by now."

Tucker continues....

"We were almost completed tanking when our controller asked which F-4 was on the tanker. I suspected his reason for asking was that the bogey contact had reappeared and I was just about to tell Bruce not to say anything. I unplugged, but before I could warn Bruce, he had acknowledged that we were on the tanker. Sure enough, the controller had the bogey contact and then quickly vectored the VF-31 Phantom for him. The MiG was about 10 to 12 miles west of us. The controller advised the VF-31 Phantom driver not to go feet dry without a radar contact on the bogey. I immediately turned west, estimating that I was about five miles north of the other Phantom and five miles off the coast.

The VF-31 Phantom called no contact and that he was turning right to parallel the coast. I called him and asked him to turn left, away from me, so that he wouldn't interfere with my search. I then asked the controller for "bogey dope". We were told he was at 8,000 feet, 140 degrees at twelve miles from us. I descended quickly to 8,000 feet and Bruce got a radar contact southwest at twelve miles almost immediately. The bogey was tracking north & we rolled in about eight miles behind him. I lit the afterburner, accelerated to about 650 knots, and closed to about four to five miles... that's when we lost radar contact. We were closing rather rapidly and I didn't want to overrun him, so I slowed to about 400 knots while doing a left 90 degree turn, then back immediately to the northerly heading.

We realized that he had probably descended, so I let down immediately to 3,500 feet. On my previous combat cruise, we had operated extensively in this area & I knew that the highest karst was 3,500 feet, so l wasn't concerned about running into a mountain. As soon as we reached 3,500 feet, Bruce reacquired the bogey about six to seven miles in front of us. I remember saying to myself; ‘Tucker, this is probably your last chance to get this guy or any other MiG, so you 'd better make it quick and good." As soon as Bruce got the radar contact, I re-lit the afterburners and accelerated to 650 knots.

As I was approaching 650 knots, it occurred to me that I should jettison the centerline tank and the TERs. My airspeed was well above the published jettison limits, but I applied about two positive G and jettisoned the partially full centerline tank. There was a mild "thump "as it cleanly departed the airplane (due to the speed. there was already a mild buffet). Then I jettisoned the TERs, putting 1.5G or less on the airplane. There was a very pronounced "BANG“ as they came off, which really surprised me...which I guess it shouldn't have, since the TERs were far enough out on the wings to develop some pretty good force because of the long moment arm, even though they were light.

Now with a clean F-4, I was moving along approaching 750 knots, closing the MiG at something like 300 knots from directly astern. We closed to about three miles and were inside max range for our Sparrows. Bruce hollered: "shoot shoot " but since the MiG was steady in his retreat, I thought we should sweeten it up a bit by closing a little more. I said: "Wait. Wait" and we closed to almost two miles before I squeezed off two Sparrows at five second intervals, calling "Fox One" as I fired. The rocket motor was so bright at night that it virtually blinded me for a second.

The second Sparrow launched just as the first warhead detonated directly in front of us. There was a large fireball and the second missile impacted in the same spot. I came right slightly to avoid any debris. The target on our radar appeared to stop mid-air & within a second or two the radar broke lock. The MiG-21 pilot did not survive. If he ejected after the first missile, the second missile must have done him in. We couldn't see any debris in the dark.

We were in a fairly hot area .... lots of surface- to- air missile & AAA sites, just southwest of Thanh Hoa. We coasted out with lots of fuel (about 9,000 pounds) and returned to the ship. The kill was confirmed about three days later........ "

The squadron's participation in the Viet Nam conflict ended on 8 January 1973, when it left "Yankee Station" for the last time. VF-103 and CVW-3 had a total of 173 days in combat. The squadron lost three aircraft during that time, with the first on 11 July 1972 when AC 212 (BuNo.155803) crewed by LT. Robert Randall & LT. Frederick "Bat" Masterson was shot down by a MIG-17 while flying MIGCAP for an airstrike on Hai Duong. Initially, Randall lost his AWG-10 radar & shortly thereafter, his UHF radio. Two Mig's started chasing the F-4 & after doing three reversals, Randall & Masterson took 37mm hits on their aircraft's hydraulics. They ejected from their nearly inverted aircraft, with Masterson critically injured from his violent exit from Clubleaf 212.

Randall recalls "We got airborne on 11 July leading a MIGCAP for an Alpha Strike going to Hai Doung and right away Bat found the radar was down. As we were crossing the beach toward our station, the radio started crapping out. We did get calls for Migs north of us and spotted two (Mig) 17's crossing right to left ahead, all of us at 2000-4000 feet or so altitude. By then, no radios. We reversed high and left and started the back and forth. After the last reversal, the Migs were heading South and split, #1 turning fairly gently east, the other going west. I got a tone (AIM-9 Sidewinder missile tone, indicating the missile's heat seeker sensed a target) on #1, but thought it was a long shot I could improve, so didn’t fire. I wish I had that decision back."

"I turned west toward #2 and was coming around OK on him, with #1 at ~ 8:00 (low to the left) when 37mm tracers started coming up our left side and Bat yelled to Break Right. When I broke, totally amazed that tracers were there, we took a hit in the turtleback (I think) and saw 3 (Mig) 17's in a V (formation) badly overrunning us from the Northeast. Last I saw they were belly up to us as our controls turned to jelly. All the lights were lit, the A/C (aircraft) was tucking and I pulled the lower (ejection) handle. As you mention, Bat got hurt pretty bad (right arm) from flailing, I guess, and after a brief futile attempt to get together on the ground, we took some pretty impressive small arms fire and got rounded up."

"After we had been back for maybe 2 years, I was at Pax River (Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland )(I think still at TPS) (test pilot school) when I got a call from a Chief down in Norfolk (Virginia). He had been on one of the pickets (oceangoing RADAR ship) in the Gulf (of Tonkin) on 11 July and watched our engagement via radar. He said they had tried to call us when they saw the second flight coming in, but obviously we weren’t hearing them. He said it was clear to them we had stumbled/blundered into a Mig trap and it killed them that they couldn’t warn us to get out of there. Very nice call. This surprised me: he also said that one of the Migs didn’t make it home, but we couldn’t figure out which one. I would love to have claimed one, but missed my chance by hoarding bullets, I guess. The only things I can guess are: one ran out of gas (it was a fairly long engagement and the first two spent a lot of time in burner), one flew into the ground (at the end, #1 was a couple hundred feet below us, #2 lower still and we were at ~ 1200’ -1400’) or we FODDED (jet engine foreign object damage) one of the second flight (hardly glamorous, but they were VERY close)."

At the time of their shootdown, Randall & Masterson's families were not given much hope that they had escaped from their aircraft before it crashed. Four months later, the Navy sent word to the families that they had acquired a newspaper printed in Hanoi that had the story of the capture of two U.S. pilots on 11 July at the place where they had gone down. The Navy then changed Masterson's status from MIA to POW. Randall retained MIA status until the signing of the peace agreement in January of 1973. They were released from captivity on 29 March 1973. Masterson returned to flight status on 15 June 1974 and retired from the Navy in 1977 as a LCDR. Sadly, he was killed in a head-on car crash in Maryland on 30 November 2001.

Randall, after a brief stay at the Portsmouth Naval Hospital, returned to flight status in 1974 and eventually became a Test Pilot at NAS Patuxent River. He retired from the Navy in 1979 and is currently a DoD contractor.

The second squadron aircraft loss was on 8 September 1972 when AC 202 (BuNo. 157302) was crippled by 23mm AAA fire during a road recon mission along Route Pack 1, approximately 25 miles north of Vinh. On fire and with failing hydraulics, CDR. P.Bordone (CAG) and LT. J. Findley managed to fly their severely damaged aircraft back out into the Tonkin Gulf near their carrier (SARATOGA), which was 80 miles offshore where they ejected and were rescued by a Plane Guard "Angel" Detatchment helicopter from HS-7.

The third and final loss for the squadron occurred on the night of 20 November 1972. Clubleaf 210 (BuNo. 157288), crewed by LCDR. V. Lesh & LTJG. D. Cordes was flying BARCAP for B-52 raids against Vinh when it was damaged by a SAM missle at 17,000 feet about 20 miles northeast of the target area. Lesh was able to keep the damaged aircraft (with it's port wing on fire & one failed engine) aloft until he reached the Tonkin Gulf near Thanh Hoa and safely ejected along with Cordes when the crippled Phantom lost all hydraulics.

Pitch black, gusting winds and rough seas awaited the downed airmen as a daring night rescue was executed by a Sikorsky HH-3 "Big Mother", a dark grey, 7.62mm G.E. Minigun equipped rescue helicopter from HC-7, Detachment 110 launched from the USS JOUETT (DLG-29). (The Big Mother was piloted by LTJG. Tim Dewhirst, co-piloted by LTJG. Jerry Haggerty and crewed by AMH3 Matt Szymanski & AT3 Michael Shepherd.)

Big Mother 60 pilot Dewhirst reported "At 2315 we launched from the JOUETT and after attaining a safe altitude & airspeed I attempted to contact JOUETT on helo common (radio channel) but received no reply. I tried two more times to contact JOUETT and was then told by JOUETT tower that they were still trying to get a (air) controller up to combat (CIC) . A minute or so after takeoff the controller gave me a vector of 330 at 19 miles to the survivors from CLUBLEAF 210 & that they were in the water eight miles from the beach. Meanwhile, we were setting up the weapons and rigging the hoist. My swimmer AT3 Shepherd was also getting into his swim gear".

"Just about the time we reached the point to which we had been vectored, the controller came up and gave us a new vector of 245 for 7 miles. This was a radical change so I double checked. The vector was confirmed so we proceeded in that direction. We had been monitoring guard (emergency radio channel) all the time but heard only an occasional beeper and some transmissions from other aircraft. No voice communication was ever established with either survivor by BM-60."

"The weather at the time was extremely poor and hampered us at every point. During the search we could go no higher than three hundred feet and still see the water. It was completely overcast, ceiling at 300 feet, visibility was one to two miles in light rain and winds were THIRTY KNOTS GUSTING TO FORTY. (emphasis added) The seas were at sea state five. After three or four minutes on our new vector we spotted a flare at our eleven o'clock, about one mile away. I notified the ship that we had spotted a flare as I turned in that direction and started a slow descent to 150 feet. Soon the flare went out and there was nothing to be seen anymore."

"We continued in the same direction and started to slow down when I saw simultaneously a pencil flare from the location of the first flare sighting and another night flare a few hundred yards off the nose. I elected to continue on to the second night flare because we were flying down wind at the time and after turning into the wind I would then be able to pick up one survivor while keeping the general location of the other in view. I was set up for a right hand approach to the survivor with a final heading of about 050 degrees. The controller had reported the true winds as 050 degrees at 25 knots. The approach was completely manual because our doppler (radar) was inoperative but I tried to follow an automatic approach profile."

"The closer we got to hover, the more I could tell that the winds were not from 050 but rather from our port side. I corrected a little and came to a hover over the survivor, heading about 020 degrees. The swimmer (AT3 Shepherd) went down the hoist and swam to the survivor without detaching himself (from the hoist). The stability of my hover suffered greatly because of the lack of the doppler, gusty winds and IFR conditions so we had difficulty maintaining a position over the the swimmer and survivor. The only real indication of movement in any direction was that I was being told by my first crewman (AMH3 Szymanski)."

Rescue Swimmer Shepherd recalls:".... I had been in the same area 10 days earlier picking up an A-7 driver. In that rescue, a mid-daylight rescue, as we approached, it was like a John Wayne movie. We could see the beach clearly, and if you didn't know you were in North Vietnam you would have thought you were approaching Waikiki. You could see the sandy beach and the palm trees swaying in the heavy winds of 30-40 knots. Only there were A-7s strafing the beach. We could see that there was small arms fire coming from the beach, though the A-7s were keeping the locals from getting to their boats and coming out to interfere with our rescue. What we didn't know that some North Vietnamese Army Guards were trying to hit us with an old French coast gun. I had heard it was 70mm. We did not know this as the weather was so bad, very similar to the weather of this night. As we were leaving the area after picking up Lt Cobb (A-7 driver) the coastal artillery piece hit the raft where Cobb had been sitting in the water a few minutes earlier......."

With that earlier rescue still fresh in his mind,Shepherd continues the narrative: "I entered the water right next to the survivor (the F-4 pilot, Lesh) who was still in his raft. I got him out, hooked us up to the hoist with the snap links and signaled the first crewman. After a momentary hesitation we were dragged briefly through the water then out and free. I wrapped my legs around the survivors chest and guided him into the cargo door. Once inside, I motioned to the survivor to remove his inflated LPA-1 (floatation vest), checked to see his radio was off, then had him strap in while I looked him over for injury. He indicated he felt OK. First Crewman Szymanski saw my condition after picking up the pilot and offered to ride the hoist down to pick up the RIO. I considered all the factors, and felt that I was a stronger swimmer than Szymanski, and that it would take too long for Szymanski to get into his swim gear."

Pilot Dewhirst continues: "At this tme Szymanski quit talking on the ICS (intercom) and caused some agonizing moments in the cockpit because we didn't know what was going on. As it turned out, he had to use both hands to haul up the lanyard with the seat pan attached (to the survivor) and could not key his mike. He then cleared us for forward flight. During our hover over the first survivor, the second survivor discharged a couple more pencil flares as though to remind us of his presence. The flares had come from our two o'clock so when Szymanski cleared us we air taxied the half mile to him."

"He had seen us headed in his direction & had shot a couple more flares as we came. This helped us update his location so well that we taxied directly to him. We corrected our heading into the wind and came to a hover over him heading 350 degrees. The second hover was better because we were getting a little more familiar with the situation and how to correct for it."

Rescue Swimmer Shepherd: "... moving into position over the second survivor, I got into the horsecollar for another hoist water entry. I was lowered to within a few feet of the raft. I coaxed the survivor (the F-4's RIO, Cordes) out of the raft and he asked if we could save it. I told him to forget the raft and pulled him clear of it. Then the horsecollar jumped free from my hands and was floating about ten feet away. I swam for it pulling the survivor, once I had it, I told the survivor to hang onto it while I hooked us up. With the all clear signal we were momentarily jerked out of water, then dragged about 15 yards before we were clear. Again I wrapped my legs around the survivor and guided him into the aircraft. Then I went forward, sat down and threw up- sick from swallowing sea water & exhausted from swimming in the rough seas."

Pilot Dewhirst sums up: "The second pick up was completed in less time and with less trouble than the first. When both survivors were aboard they were double checked for injuries and prepared for the flight back to the DLG. (USS JOUETT) We reported both rescues aboard and requested vectors to the JOUETT. Our controller said that would be a negative and gave us vectors to the USS TRUXTUN. That seemed a little strange at the time but we headed that direction anyway. My copilot took control of BM-60 and flew us to the TRUXTUN while I relaxed. LTJG Haggerty executed an actual LVA until I acquired the deck visually at which time I completed the approach to an uneventful landing at 0015".

The USS TRUXTUN (DLGN-35) served primarily as PIRAZ (Positive Identification Radar Advisory Zone) for Task Force 77 in the Gulf of Tonkin, ensuring the safety & flight tracking services for U.S. strike aircraft as well as maintaining constant radar surveillance of the area & providing defense against enemy aircraft. When Big Mother 60 dropped off Sluggers Lesh & Cordes, TRUXTUN was on her fourth WestPac deployment.

LCDR. Lesh & LTJG. Cordes flew many more sorties over North VietNam & finished the Squadron's WestPac deployment unscathed. For its performance during this combat cruise, VF-103 was awarded the Navy Unit Commendation.

FITRON 103's aircraft were back at NAS Oceana, Virginia Beach on 12 February 1973 & it's maintenance personnel rode SARATOGA back to Mayport, Florida where it arrived on 13 February 1973. The remainder of 1973 had VF-103 detatchments sent to NAS Key West, Florida for "HOTPAD"(15 Minute Ready Alert) duty in case of Cuban mischief & to NAS Miramar, California for "TOPGUN" aircrew training.

In 1980 during a Med cruise while on SARATOGA, the squadron suffered an aircraft loss when during a catapult launch, the bridle broke before the Phantom reached flying speed. Both the Pilot & RIO ejected and were safely recovered.

The following nine years had the squadron still flying their now well aged and worn F-4's. In 1982, the squadron made the last east coast Phantom cruise on the USS FORRESTAL. VF-103 was the east coast nominee for the Clifton Award, given to the premier fighter squadron in the U.S. Navy. With the beginning of 1983, they were one of the Navy's last squadrons to transition to the F-14 Tomcat. Almost immediately after acquiring these new aircraft, VF-103 conducted the east coast's first low altitude Phoenix missile shoot.

In the fall of 1985, while attached to CVW-17 embarked on SARATOGA in the Mediterranean, FITRON103 received orders to intercept an Egypt Air 737 airliner which was hjacked terrorists on the Achille Lauro cruise ship. Two E-2 Hawkeye radar aircraft were launched from SARATOGA, one taking position over the Otrant Straight and the other near Cairo. One half hour later, four aircraft from VF-103 escorted by KA-6 tankers and EA-6 prowlers, along with an EA-3 carrying Arabic linguists, intercepted communications between the hijacked airliner and Tunesian air control authorities. The Tunesians forbade the Egypt Airliner from it's airspace. In the darkness, a VF-103 Tomcat snuck up behind the hijacked aircraft and contacted the crew of the airliner. The remaining FITRON 103 aircraft and the EA-6 closed in as well. With the EA-6 jamming all of the airliners communications (and with all Navy aircraft communicating via data links for "radio silence"), the Egyptian aircrew were "persuaded" (the Egypt Air pilot was initially reluctant to follow the F-14 until the remaining three fighter aircraft turned on their collision lights and he saw that he was surrounded) to be escorted to the NATO airbase at Sigonella, Sicily. With a platoon of Navy SEALS surrounding the landed aircraft, the hijackers were turned over to Italian authorities.

In August of 1990, the squadron, as part of CVW-17, departed on SARATOGA just days after Iraqi tanks invaded Kuwait. For the second time in its history, VF-103 was going to war. During the early morning hours of 17 January 1991, Operation Desert Shield became Operation Desert Storm and the Sluggers were in the thick of it.

FITRON 103 aircraft, along with the other squadrons of CVW-17, flew mulitple sorties against Iraq in the first step to knock out the Arab nation's military power & drive it from conquered Kuwait. In the early morning hours of 22 January 1991, a VF-103 Tomcat (Clubleaf 212, BuNo. 161430) crewed by LT. Devon Jones (pilot) & LT. Lawrence Slade (RIO)  were escorting a flight of A-6 Intruders & EA-6 Prowlers in a multi-pronged strike on the airfield at Al Asad, near Baghdad. A modified SA-2 surface-to-air missile hit the F-14 around 3:00 a.m., at which point Jones & Slade ejected safely away from their plane's falling wreckage. Unfortunately, the two were separated. Jones landed to the north of Slade and upon accessing his situation, began to dig himself a foxhole in the sand. Jones waited as several Iraqi farmers passed within a few feet of of his position. When he finally turned on his survival radio, he found that rescue forces were already looking for him.

Two A-10s with F-15 escorts providing cover were sweeping the area, trying to pinpoint his location, which was about 8-10 miles north of his aircraft's crash site. They did so, then left the area to refuel & escort a MH-53J Pav Low helicopter from the USAF's 20th Special Operations Squadron (SOS) for the rescue in daylight. Jones waited anxiously, then noticed an Iraqi truck headed directly toward him. Before it reached him, it erupted in flames. The A-10s had returned, destroying the truck with their 30mm guns. After eight hours on the ground, LT. Jones was rescued, becoming the first airman rescued in Iraq during Operation Desert Storm. Twenty six year old LT. Slade was not as fortunate.

Shortly after daybreak, a Bedouin tribesmen armed with a shotgun and a soldier toting an AK-47 captured LT. Slade and stripped him of everything but his flight suit. They then blindfolded and handcuffed him with his hands behind his back, remaining in that condition for days. Slade was transported to Baghdad shortly after his capture. On one stop during this trip, as he was led for several hundred yards blindfolded and handcuffed from one compound back to the truck, numerous people hit and kicked him repeatedly. He was then forcibly thrown off the curb and into the truck door, breaking his nose. During this incident, he was struck from behind with a rifle butt, falling forward onto his face and broken nose.

He was then taken into the "Bunker," a processing point for most of the Allied POWs taken early in the Gulf War, where he underwent his first real interrogations. In his second interrogation, his captors bound him to a chair and secured an additional blindfold over his eyes. The first time Slade pleaded ignorance to a question, he was hit so hard on the side of his head that he would have toppled over if someone had not been standing on the other side to catch his falling body. His interrogators then beat him with wooden bats & blackjacks. Subsequent blows resulted in his nose being broken a second time, along with rupturing his eardrums. He was soon moved to an army prison known to the POWs as the "Bungalows," where he remained for approximately two weeks. During this time, he was taken back to the "Bunker" occasionally for interrogations and for the production of coerced videotaped denunciations of the War.

On one occasion, Slade's captors stuffed toilet paper down his flight suit and set it on fire while he was handcuffed & blindfolded. On the night of 31 January 1991, the Iraqis emptied the "Bungalows" and bussed the prisoners to a prison later termed the "Biltmore" by the POWs. LT. Slade's rectangular cell at the "Biltmore" spanned about twelve feet diagonally. It included one tall window that was sealed off, a non-functioning toilet, and no running water. The interrogations here, carried out now by Iraqi secret police and no longer by soldiers, were more psychologically oriented. After one long string of questions, one of his interrogators said, "Lawrence, you have answered "I don't know" to the last ten questions. It's up to you now to decide what happens." When he still could not supply a satisfactory answer to the next question, his captors held a mock execution. The leader recited some poetry and asked if there was anything he wanted to say to his wife. Slade was dramatically affected by the reference to his wife. Until that point, none of his family members had been mentioned at all. His captors then told him to prepare to die, pushed a pistol against his head, and pulled the trigger. "Click". Fortunately, the pistol's chamber was empty. These mock execution procedures were repeated on him three more times during his captivity.

Along with other prisoners, LT. Slade was held as a human shield to protect against the bombing of strategic targets by Allied aircraft. On 23 February 1991, Allied forces (not knowing that the POWs were being held at this location) targeted the "Biltmore", (which was the Iraqi Intelligence Service Regional Headquarters) with four 2,000-lb. bombs. None of the POWs were seriously injured during that bombing, but the building was reduced to rubble, and the POWs were soon moved to a civilian prison, which they later referred to as "Joliet." At one point during his stay at "Joliet", Slade was paired in a cell with a British Royal Air Force POW, LT. John Nichol. (Nichol & another Royal Air Force POW, John Peters, recall the barbaric treatment of LT. Slade and other fellow POWs at the hands of the Iraqis in their book, "Tornado Down".) Slade and his cellmate looked out their cell's window and tried to communicate with an Iraqi prisoner across the courtyard. Three men soon entered the cell and beat and kicked the prisoners viciously for this effort at communication, breaking Slade's teeth, fracturing his vertebrae, and knocking him unconscious. The guards also engaged in another mock execution, pointing a gun at Slade, saying "you are now going to die," and pulling the trigger. In addition to his broken nose, ruptured eardrums, fractured vertebrae, and severe bruising, Slade also suffered torn pectoral muscles from the beatings at his captors hands during the period of his captivity. LT. Slade weighed about 180 pounds when he was shot down, but only 135 upon his release on 4 March 1991, when he was turned over to U.S. officials by the International Committee of the Red Cross near the Jordanian border station of Ruwayshid. He was then transferred to the hospital ship USNS Mercy (T-AH19) for medical treatment.

(On 4 April 2002, now CDR. Slade joined 16 other Desert Storm POWs and their families in a lawsuit against the Republic of Iraq, the Iraqi Intelligence Service & Saddam Hussein for the barbaric treatment & torture that they endured during their captivity. In 2003, the US District Court in Washington D.C. awarded them monetary damages. It is unknown (and doubtful) if they received any of these awards from the Iraqi government.)

VF-103, along with the other squadrons of CVW-17 departed the Gulf on SARATOGA on 11 March 1991. They arrived back in the U.S. on 28 March 1991.

Next - the "Bones" take over ....... To be continued .......