The target on March 10, 1967, was the iron- and steelworks at thai Nguyen in the Red River delta, 35 miles north of Hanoi. The Joint Chiefs of Staff listed it as their đứng top industrial target in North Vietnam, but, because of constraints imposed by Washington on conduct of the Vietnam War, it had been off limits to air strikes until now.

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The plant was located near the small town of thai Nguyen. It was part of a sprawling industrial complex that occupied about two square miles. Earlier in the year, US aircraft had bombed the railroad marshaling yard và supply depot at bầu Nguyen, but the main industrial complex was left untouched.

The ironworks, built by trung quốc in the 1950s, was the pride of North Vietnamese industry. The country had two other foundries, both of them smaller. For some time, thai Nguyen had been making products with imported steel. More recently, a steel mill—the only one in North Vietnam—had been built at bầu Nguyen.

In January 1967, Adm. U.S. Grant Sharp, commander in chief of US Pacific Command, requested permission for a series of air strikes “to systematically flatten North Vietnam’s military và industrial base” with “the thai Nguyen iron-and-steel plant at the head of the list.”

President Johnson on Feb. 22 approved bầu Nguyen as a target, but Southeast Asia was in the middle of the wet season monsoon & the first strike was scrubbed eight times because of bad weather. The mission was on hold again the morning of March 10, but a break in the weather was forecast for later in the day. The strike force launched just before noon lớn be over the target at 3:30 p.m.

The strike force included 72 aircraft from three bases in Thailand. There were F-105s from the 388th Tactical Fighter Wing at Korat, which went in first, followed by F-105s from the 355th TFW, Takhli, & F-4 Phantoms from the 8th TFW at Ubon. In addition to carrying bombs, the F-4s were responsible for protecting the strike force from MiG interceptors.

The F-105—officially Thunderchief but known khổng lồ all as the “Thud”—flew most of the bombing missions against North Vietnam. It was fast at low cấp độ but was at a disadvantage in a turning fight with MiGs. The F-4, newer & more agile, could handle any of the North Vietnamese fighters, including the MiG-21.

The strike force aircraft refueled in the air from tankers over Laos and entered North Vietnam. They crossed the Red River và flew down the back side of Thud Ridge, continuing on to mang đến Moi before looping back toward bầu Nguyen.

Weasels

The air defenses were thick in the North Vietnamese heartland, and the gunners were ready và waiting. One of the pilots that day said the flak was the heaviest he had ever seen “except in World War II movies.”

Thai Nguyen was ringed by 96 anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) sites, each with several guns. North Vietnam’s main fighter base, Phuc Yen, lay nearby, between bầu Nguyen & Hanoi. US pilots were forbidden to attack the base, và the North Vietnamese knew it. The industrial complex also was protected by SA-2 surface-to-air missiles (SAMs).

The AAA was particularly effective at close range. US fighters could reduce their vulnerability by going to higher altitude, but that was where the SAMs were most lethal.

The Wild Weasels, flying specially equipped F-105Fs, had been created expressly to suppress the SAMs.

The March 10 strike force included two flights of Weasels, one from Korat và one from Takhli. The Weasels’ tactic was to use themselves as bait. They “trolled” for SAMs, tempting them to lớn turn on their fan hâm mộ Song tracking radar or fire a missile. If they did, the Weasels would trang chủ on the signal & launch a Shrike antiradiation missile khổng lồ follow the beam back khổng lồ its source and destroy the radar. The site could then be finished off with guns or bombs.

The Takhli Weasels that day, điện thoại tư vấn sign Lincoln, were several minutes in front of the rest of the 355th aircraft, allowing themselves time lớn work the SAMs before the strike flights got there.

Lincoln flight consisted of two elements of two airplanes each. The element leaders flew F-105Fs, two-seat models configured with electronics và other equipment khổng lồ detect & destroy the SAM radars. They were armed with Shrike missiles, CBU-24 cluster bombs, & 20 mm Gatling guns. The Lincoln wingmen flew standard Thuds, F-105Ds, which had guns and a full load of bombs. On “Iron Hand” missions, the F-105Fs found and knocked out the SAM radars & the F-105Ds came in to demolish the site.

The flight commander was Maj. David A. Everson, Lincoln 01, with Capt. Donald A. Luna, the electronic warfare officer (EWO), in the back seat. Capt. Bill Hoeft was Lincoln 02. The leader of the second element was Capt. Merlyn Dethlefsen, Lincoln 03, with Capt. Kevin A. “Mike” Gilroy as his EWO. Flying on his wing was Maj. Kenneth H. Bell, Lincoln 04.

All six airmen in the Weasel flight had plenty of experience. Each of them had flown more than 50 combat missions and had been lớn North Vietnam many times.

“We were the eyes & ears of that strike force,” Dethlefsen told Airman magazine in 1969. “That target was very important. It produced about 40 percent of the enemy’s steel. The SAM sites were there lớn protect it from our air strikes. The strike force would be very vulnerable lớn the SAMs & anti-aircraft guns. Keeping them down was our job.”

First Element Lost

If the defenders at bầu Nguyen needed any stirring up, the Korat F-105s in the first wave of the attack had done a proper job of it.

“After we turned south, there was absolutely no doubt about the target location,” Bell said in his 1993 book, 100 Missions North, published by Brassey’s. “Thai Nguyen was ablaze with AAA fire and a large column of đen smoke covered the area,” Bell said. “The 388th was in the thick of it, and we were a minute away from the most intense barrage of ground fire I had ever seen. Several SAM sites were up and tracking us, but their threat paled in comparison khổng lồ the guns. The defenses were ready & Thai Nguyen was a boiling mushroom of ugly đen flak.”

After the mission was over, Gilroy remembered how some of the flak rounds, reaching the over of their range & losing velocity, rattled lượt thích pea gravel off the bottom of the aircraft’s wings.

Lincoln flight approached bầu Nguyen in combat spread formation, the four aircraft almost line abreast with Everson và Hoeft on the right & Dethlefsen và Bell on the left. Two miles out from the target, the Weasels detected a SAM radar tracking them.

Everson in Lincoln 01 attacked first. He swept wide to the right, dived through the flak, và launched a Shrike missile toward the SAM site. Seconds later, Lincoln 01 took a critical hit from the AAA. Chute beepers confirmed that Everson & Luna had bailed out. They reached the ground và were captured immediately. They spent the rest of the war as POWs, returning in the general repatriation in 1973.

Hoeft, Lincoln 02, followed Everson into the flak. He was also hit and put out of action. An 85 milimet shell blew a four-foot hole in his left wing, just outboard of the landing gear. He was lucky khổng lồ make it to lớn Udorn Air Base in northern Thailand, where he recovered.

Dethlefsen Takes Over

That left Dethlefsen, Lincoln 03, in command of the two remaining Weasels. Merlyn Hans Dethlefsen, 32, was a former Iowa farm boy. He joined the Air Force as an enlisted man và earned his commission and navigator’s wings through the aviation cadet program in 1955. He later went lớn pilot training, graduating in 1960. He flew F-100s at first, then moved into F-105s. He had come lớn Takhli in October 1966. This was his 78th combat mission.

The prevailing wisdom among fighter pilots was not to linger in situations where the air defenses were intensive. Making more than one pass was regarded as a high risk. Merlyn Dethlefsen would make five passes at thai Nguyen. He also would stay in the target area for 10 minutes, which must have seemed an eternity.

“We were still ahead of the strike force & they were still vulnerable,” Dethlefsen said. “We had fuel & missiles & guns và bombs, and the job wasn’t done yet. Lincoln lead had seen the target & launched a missile, but it had missed. I decided we would stay. Coming around, I studied the flak pattern. It wasn’t a matter of being able to avoid the flak but of finding the least intense areas.”

On the first pass, Gilroy, operating the electronics in the back seat of Lincoln 03, got an approximate fix on the SAM site. The two Thuds emerged from the flak with numerous bullet holes. Dethlefsen, in the words of a subsequent nomination for the Medal of Honor, “was now the subject of three defensive systems—the MiGs, SAMs, and anti-aircraft artillery.”

As Dethlefsen came around for the second pass, the F-105 strike flights arrived and began dropping bombs on the steel mill.

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The signal from the SAM radar was strong. As Dethlefsen lined up to attack it, two MiG-21s pulled into shooting position behind Lincoln 03 and 04. Dethlefsen kept his concentration on the target. Just as one of the MiGs fired a missile, Dethlefsen launched a Shrike against the SAM site.

“I broke to lớn the right, down through the flak,” Dethlefsen said. “I figured that would give me the best chance of evading both the heat-seeking missiles & the MiG’s guns. Didn’t think the MiGs would want lớn follow me through that stuff. They didn’t.”

The two Weasels had eluded the MiGs by going low, but that took them into the teeth of the AAA. Dethlefsen had taken several hits from the 57 mm guns and perhaps from the MiG cannon, but his engine và flight controls were still in good order.

Bell, in Lincoln 04, had sustained battle damage that was much more serious. “My right wing had been damaged,” he said. “The right leading-edge flap was blown down, forcing the airplane into a left turn because of added lift from the right wing. I was able to lớn hold the wings màn chơi with cross controls, but it added a difficult complication. … I had lớn settle for cross controls and hope for turns to the left.”

The Weasels could have left thai Nguyen when the strike force did, but that wasn’t the way Dethlefsen interpreted his duty.

“I could hear the strike force withdrawing,” Dethlefsen said. “I had permission to lớn stay there after they left. That steel mill with the related industry was a big target—too big khổng lồ knock out with one strike. I knew those fighter-bombers would be back tomorrow. Same route, right over this area. My aircraft was working well enough to be effective. With the weather the way it was that day, I knew we would never have a better chance. So I made up my mind lớn stay until I got that SAM site or they got me.”

As the Weasels turned back in khổng lồ the defenses of thai Nguyen, Dethlefsen saw a different SAM site dead ahead. He fired his second Shrike and the radar abruptly went off the air. Bell, holding close on Dethlefsen’s wing with some difficulty because of the damaged flap, did not have a good angle but dropped his bombs on the site anyway.

On the next pass, Lincoln 03 và 04 came in low, looking for the original SAM site. Dethlefsen saw the radar van and pickled his CBU-24 fragmentation bombs onto it as they roared past. Turning, Dethlefsen and Bell came back across and strafed the site with their guns.

The Medal of Honor nomination continued, “As he completed the attack, a large part of the SAM site was engulfed in secondary fires. Only then did Captain Dethlefsen depart the area. Low on fuel and unable khổng lồ reach his assigned base, he was forced lớn an emergency forward operating base where he successfully landed his battle-damaged aircraft.”

Medal of Honor

Lt. Col. Phil Gast, who led the Takhli strike force that day, knew that the Weasel engagement at thai Nguyen had been something special. He asked Maj. Hal Bingaman to lớn look into the details of what happened.

Dethlefsen did not fit the stereotype of the flamboyant fighter pilot, Bingaman said. Dethlefsen & Gilroy explained lớn Bingaman that it had been a tough mission, but they did not embellish it. They were reluctant to depict their achievements as having been that dramatic or extraordinary.

“I had to lớn drag it out of them,” Bing­aman said. He was struck by how well the pilot & EWO had worked together. “Without Mike Gilroy’s instant inputs there’d not have been the timing there for even the first pass, much less the other four,” Bingaman said.

The wing thought Dethlefsen’s actions were worthy of the Medal of Honor và nominated him for it. Gilroy & Bell were put in for awards as well.

Meanwhile, operations against thai Nguyen continued. It was the Air Force’s leading target in North Vietnam for the next month and a half. By the over of April, air strikes had put the iron- and steelworks out of business.

Six aircraft were lost, all in the first two days. Lincoln 01 was lost on Day 1, as were two F-4s from Ubon. Three more F-105s from Takhli were shot down the next day. One of the F-105s was brought down by a SAM. AAA accounted for the other five.

Merlyn Dethlefsen finished his combat tour, 100 missions over North Vietnam, in May & returned to lớn the States as a flight instructor at Vance AFB, Okla. Dethlefsen was there when he learned that he was khổng lồ receive the Medal of Honor.

The presentation was made by President Lyndon B. Johnson at the white house on Feb. 1, 1968. Johnson noted that Dethlefsen’s actions had not been a momentary impulse.

“He had plenty of time khổng lồ think about the danger lớn himself, khổng lồ figure the odds, even to turn away,” Johnson said, “but his courage was calculated. It came not from desperation, but dedication. He answered a call far beyond duty.”

Gilroy was awarded the Air Force Cross và Bell the Silver Star.

After his tour at Vance, Dethlefsen went khổng lồ the Air War College at Maxwell AFB, Ala., và from there was assigned to the faculty at Army War College at Carlisle Barracks in Pennsylvania. In 1974, he went khổng lồ Beale AFB, Calif., as assistant director of operations for the SR-71 wing. In 1975, he was assigned khổng lồ Dyess AFB, Tex., as director of operations for the B-52 wing. He retired from there as a colonel in 1977.

He then relocated to Fort Worth, Tex., where he headed his own small business, home Medical Equipment Co., until 1986. He died in 1987 & is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Doing His Job

When Merlyn Dethlefsen spoke of the events at bầu Nguyen, it was with understatement và a strong sense of duty.

“He was very modest và unassuming,” said his son, Jeff Dethlefsen. “He always just felt that he had a job lớn do & did it the best he could. I don’t think he ever thought of himself as anything special. When we talked about his Medal of Honor mission, he would kind of laugh và say it was just a routine mission. He always said there were other missions that were really tough.”

“I didn’t consider the mission extraordinary,” Dethlefsen told Airman in 1969. “I had been up that way before, và I knew what lớn expect. I expected khổng lồ get shot at a lot, & they shot at me a lot. I expected MiGs khổng lồ be airborne and SAMs khổng lồ be launched. And these things did occur. It was one of the more difficult of my 100 missions, & the ground fire was a little more intense.

“All I did was the job I was sent to lớn do. It had been quite a while since we had been able khổng lồ go to the Hanoi area. So while the weather held, we were able to bởi some pretty good work. It was a case of doing my job to the best of my ability. I think that is what we mean when we điện thoại tư vấn ourselves professional airmen in the Air Force.”

Pardo’s Push

The two F-4s from Ubon that were lost on March 10 logged another dramatic story from bầu Nguyen. Before the strike flight reached the target, ground fire hit & damaged Capt. Bob Aman’s aircraft, but he và his backseater, 1st Lt. Bob Houghton, stayed with the formation. Over the target, they were hit again & began lớn leak fuel seriously.

Capt. Bob Pardo, with 1st Lt. Steve Wayne in the backseat, was hit as well. Pardo might have been able to lớn reach a tanker, but Aman was going to run out of fuel before he could get to Laos, where he and Houghton could bail out with a reasonable chance of rescue. He was still over North Vietnam when he flamed out.

Pardo decided to lớn push Aman lớn safer territory. He brought the nose of his F-4 into tương tác with Aman’s aircraft, but that didn’t work. He then told Aman to drop his tailhook. Pardo positioned the tailhook against his windscreen & pushed. Although the hook slipped frequently và had to lớn be repositioned, that worked.

Aman’s rate of descent slowed. Then Pardo’s left engine caught fire. In any case, he was almost out of fuel himself. Both crews bailed out near the Laotian border và were rescued.

In the immediate aftermath of the incident, Pardo was in some trouble. Pilots were forbidden khổng lồ attempt to lớn push one airplane with another. However, the merit of it was recognized in the long run. In 1989, Pardo and Wayne were awarded the Silver Star for what had long since come khổng lồ be known as “Pardo’s Push.” (See “Valor: Pardo’s Push,” October 1996, p. 8.)

John T. Correll was editor in chief of Air Force Magazine for 18 years and is now a contributing editor. His most recent article, “The Strategy of Desert Storm,” appeared in the January issue.