July 5, 1967: Near the North Vietnamese/Chinese border.
Awaiting his turn to roll-in from 14,000 feet, Air Force Captain Wayne Waddell kept calculating his odds of penetrating all four layers of anti-aircraft fire. His aircraft, the Republic F-105 Thunderchief, nicknamed the ‘Thud’, was the workhorse of the bombing campaign against North Vietnam early in the war. The largest single-seat single-engine combat aircraft in history, the ‘Thud’ weighed 50,000 pounds and carried a 14,000 lb. bomb load, twice that of the B-17 and B-24 heavy bombers of World War II.
The thick flak below Waddell obscured his target: railroad sidings about 40 miles northeast of Hanoi, capitol of North Vietnam. Eighth to roll-in, Waddell penetrated three layers of flak then released his bombs at the designated release altitude, the same altitude as the fourth level of flak. His F-105 unexpectedly goes out of control. The ‘Thud’ had taken a hit.
In less than five seconds, Captain Waddell managed to pull back up using full afterburner, took it off afterburner and leveled off to breathe a sigh of relief, then put her back in afterburner to head for home. Waddell recalled, “That’s when things really went bad. I couldn’t recover, so I’d probably been hit in the aft section. When I went back to afterburner it probably blew off the rear section. I tumbled maybe three or four times. I had no idea of my altitude.”
Waddell punched out, his first time to eject from an aircraft. “I thought that I had waited too long, that I was dead.” Waddell had ‘grayed-out’, he couldn’t feel or see anything. Then he felt pressure around him. He recalled, “That’s when I looked up and saw the parachute blossoming open. The automatic system worked perfectly, or I wouldn’t be talking with you today.” From punch out to hitting the ground took less than three seconds; Waddell’s aircraft was that close to mother earth.
The railroad sidings were protected by what many considered to be the best anti-aircraft gun site in North Vietnam. Waddell said, “Those guns blew three of our ‘Thuds’ out of the skies on that mission and I landed less than 100 yards from the people that shot me down.” The A/A guns were operated by Chinese soldiers. Captain Wayne Waddell would be confined as a POW for the next 5 years and 8 months. This is his story.
Bremen, Georgia welcomed Dewey Wayne Waddell into this world on Sept. 12, 1935. After graduating high school, he enrolled in Georgia Tech and earned a degree in electrical engineering by June of 1956. Waddell also was awarded a commission in the U.S. Air Force through Georgia Tech’s AFROTC program.
While awaiting pilot training, Waddell worked a year for Lockheed in Marietta. (The circle of life would bring a Lockheed aircraft to North Vietnam and return POW Waddell to America.) Waddell entered pilot training in June of 1957, mastered the prop-driven T-34 Mentor, the jet trainer T-37 Tweet, the T-33 Shooting Star, and during a stint at Moody AFB in Valdosta flew one of his favorite fighters, the F-86L all-weather interceptor. A professional in the air and on the ground, he instructed students and cadets on several levels for several years.
The fall of 1966, Nellis AFB, Nevada: Wayne Waddell volunteered for combat duty in Southeast Asia and requested any aircraft other than the F-105. “I hadn’t heard anything good about the ‘Thud’ up to that point,” he said. “So, I wanted anything but the F-105.” As with much military logic, Waddell found himself saddled to an F-105 Thunderchief. He checked out in the ‘Thud’ at Nellis AFB and left the states on March 30, 1967.
After attending survival school at Clark AFB in the Philippines, Waddell arrived at Tahkli RTAFB, Thailand in April of 1967.
“Once I mastered the landings, I fell in love with the F-105,” he recalled. “I didn’t see much of Thailand for three months because of the work load. It was tough, 4 to 5 hours sleep a night, 19 missions the first month, 20 the second month and working on 22 the third month. I remember the words of my flight commander during our first meeting, ‘Welcome aboard, to the highest loss rate squadron in Southeast Asia.’ That was bad enough, but when I met the Wing Commander he said, ‘If you make 100 missions in 1 year your chances of being shot down are 50/50. If you are shot down, your chances of surviving that are 50/50.’ Well, I’d just completed a statistics course so I figured that out right quick!”
Commenting on his first mission: “The first mission was an orientation flight to the lower part of North Vietnam, looking for targets like truck parks, any target of opportunity, getting acquainted with things. Luckily on my second mission I swerved out of the way just in time as Z-23 anti-aircraft guns spit fireballs across my cockpit. That was a real attention getter.”
On his eighth mission over lower North Vietnam, Waddell was diverted to Hanoi. “I was on the same basic mission when we were released to Alpha-frag, meaning for the first time I was heading ‘downtown’, which meant Hanoi. Believe me, I was all eyeballs. Enemy Mig fighters, heavy flak, SAMs (surface to air missiles) flying around us...I was wondering if I would get out of this place. You had to focus on your surroundings, you didn’t have a choice, it was life or death, amidst flak, other pilots calling in a SAM launch, Migs making their passes. You never get used to it but you can in due course get a little more comfortable with the action, but I’m not sure ‘comfortable’ is the right word.”
Wayne Waddell flew 46 combat missions over North Vietnam, including 31 missions to the ‘downtown’ Hanoi area, until his fateful 47th mission, or as Waddell claims, “My 46½ mission.” That infamous day, in his own words:
“Our targets were two railroad sidings about 10 miles apart. We used a tactic that sent us between them, as if we were going to keep on going, then we did a butterfly to hit the targets as we were going back out. It didn’t fool anybody. They got three of us….bang, bang, bang. Once hit, my beeper was going off, and I couldn’t distinguish my beeper from the other beepers, even though I didn’t know other ‘Thuds’ had been shot down.”
Forced to eject, Waddell landed less than 100 yards from the guns that blew him out of the sky. He stated, “I knew the anti-aircraft guns were close but couldn’t see them due to the profuse foliage. The vegetation reminded me of North Georgia. So, I tried to evade. It is late afternoon and I worked my way out of the immediate area. I finally stopped in a field of low grass. Quite frankly I was sort of trapped due to a big drop-off nearby, so I just laid down in the grass and tried to stay concealed.”
A local Vietnamese militia unit found Waddell’s parachute and began searching for him. He said, “It didn’t take them long to find me. They took me to a small village then the Chinese came in and picked me up to stay with them. The Chinese offered me two options, stay in North Vietnam or go to Beijing. I declined their offer. Later I learned that I had made the right decision. (Waddell met another POW after the war that was taken to Beijing – the Beijing POW spent 7½ years in solitary confinement).
As with most of their American captives, the Communists paraded the flyer for public ridicule. “The Chinese showed me off to their gun crews like I was a war trophy,” he said. “Then a propaganda commissar took center stage and lectured the people on politics, Chairman Mao, Ho Chi Minh, stuff like that. I was turned over to the North Vietnamese come nightfall. They put me on a jet-helicopter to an airfield near our target area then trucked me to the Hoa Lo Prison (the Hanoi Hilton) in Hanoi.”
For the next 5 years and 8 months, then-Captain Wayne Waddell would be imprisoned in detention centers the POWs nicknamed, the Zoo, New Guy Village, Lil’ Vegas (Nugget and Thunderbird), Camp Faith, Unity and Heartbreak, Dogpatch, and the Plantation.
On coming to grips with the horrible reality of being a POW: “The first thing I learned was that I wasn’t as big and mean and tough as I thought I was, or that I thought a fighter pilot should be. The North Vietnamese effectively used ropes and other nasty devices to coerce you say things you didn’t want to say and normally wouldn’t say, but I managed to get through all that. After about a week or ten days I was taken to a photo session controlled by an East German. These photos were displayed in East Germany about a year later….at least those photos proved to the world and my family that I was still alive.”
Next week, Part II – American Cleverness versus Communist Cruelty.
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or aveteransstory.us.