Historic Navy Spad
Douglas Skyraider A-1H BuNo 135332
Introduction: This is the story of the service-life highlight and preservation afterlife of a Douglas Skyraider that performed honorably in the service of the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Air Force, and the Vietnamese Air Force. A-1H, Bureau Number 135332, was accepted by the Navy at Douglas’ El Segundo plant on 12 August 1954. The highlight of BuNo 135332’s service was its historic action in Attack Squadron 145 (VA-145) as lead aircraft on USS CONSTELLATION’S (CVA-64) Operation Pierce Arrow strike on North Vietnamese PT boats at Lac Chao on 5 August 1964 in retaliation for the Gulf of Tonkin Incident. Thus, BuNo 135332 was a historically significant participant in initiating the U.S. air war against North Vietnam.
Through the efforts of Charles M. Tallichet, Jr. and other former Air Force personnel, this plane was rescued from storage at RTAF Takli in 1978 and presented, in flying condition, to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (NASM) in 1983. Twenty-five-years later, she still resides at their Garber Facility in Suitland, Maryland awaiting refurbishment.
The Gulf of Tonkin Incident
Early August 1964. Commander Task Group 77.5, embarked aboard USS Ticonderoga (CVA-14) in the eastern South China Sea, had missions of providing air support for South Vietnamese and U.S. operations in-country as well as military backup, well over the horizon, for destroyer(s) conducting DeSoto ‘Freedom-of-the-Seas’ and SIGINT Collection Operations along the Southeast Asian littoral. One or two DeSoto ships would generally steam along in daylight hours, parallel to the coastline at about the 12-mile territorial-waters line then claimed by most communist countries; head out to sea at nightfall; and come back to the 12-mile-offshore patrol in the morning.
North Vietnamese Reactions: The North Vietnamese were sensitized to naval incursions near their waters because nasty PTFs operated by the South Vietnamese under OpPlan 34A, a very sensitive, closely held operation at that time, attacked shore installations along the North Vietnamese coast on the evening of 31 July and again toward midnight 3 August. Although none of this appeared to be coordinated tactically on the U.S. Navy side, it appeared to the North Vietnamese that the DeSoto Patrol, currently USS Maddox (DD-731), was a participant in coordinated naval provocations; thus they sent out motor torpedo boats to attack Maddox mid-afternoon on 2 August. The ship called Ticonderoga for support and a flight of VF-51 and VF-53 F-8U Crusaders, already airborne and led by Commander Jim Stockdale was diverted to assist. Along with Maddox gunners, the Crusaders used Zuni rockets and 20-mm cannon to leave one PT boat burning dead in the water with damage to two others. USS Turner Joy (DD-951), who had been providing services for the carrier group two hundred miles to the south, was immediately sent to join Maddox on the now more hazardous DeSoto Patrol.
Two days later, the evening of 4 August, both Ticonderoga and Constellation received urgent requests for help from Turner Joy who believed PT boats were attacking the DeSoto Patrol ships again. This PT attack was later proven imaginary but seemed real to some on-scene at the time. These action(s) became known as the Gulf of Tonkin Incident. President Johnson’s order to strike targets on the North Vietnamese mainland in retaliation, Operation Pierce Arrow, on 5 August enlarged the battle from the sea, where we had been providing South Vietnam in-country air support, onto the territory of North Vietnam.
Pilot Recollections: Ten of the known surviving VA-145 pilots contributed to these descriptions of preparations and flight actions on 4/5 August 1964. Their views from Ready Room 4 and A-1 cockpits are preserved as much as possible in the text of the action beginning in the next paragraph.
BuNo 135332 in Hong Kong: While the 2 August Gulf of Tonkin Incident was taking place, A-1H Douglas Skyraider NK507, BuNo 135332 was safely tied down aboard Constellation anchored by Green Island, Crown Colony of Hong Kong. The evening of 2 August saw many VA-145 pilots enjoying themselves at the Eagle’s Nest Bar at the top of the HK Hilton. About 2100, someone came to the party and informed the group that all leave and liberty were canceled and all hands were to report to the ship. Fortunately, liberty was granted the next day to allow the crew to collect their purchases from the Hong Kong tailors and the China Fleet Club.
Constellation Underway: The ship got underway about 0800 on 4 August and headed for the Gulf of Tonkin. That evening, just after the movie in Wardroom One started, the three attack-squadron Operations Officers were tapped on the shoulder one-by-one and told to report to Strike Planning. Shortly after that, all the other attack pilots were pulled out of the movie to report to their ready rooms. In response to USS Turner Joy’s call for help, pilots were briefed on their new mission to fly cover for the destroyers for the night. Meantime, Flight Quarters was called away and the A-1s were loaded with four 260-lb. fragmentation bombs on the wings and a flare pod on the centerline. John Westerman had ‘the mother of all colds’ thus was Squadron Duty Officer on 4 August.
Destroyer Support Flights: Hal Griffith, squadron X.O., led a typical four-plane DD-support flight with Jim Crummer, wingman; Sam Catterlin, section leader; and Tom Durant, his wingman. This flight launched around midnight and
arrived in the Gulf of Tonkin above a low overcast only to be told by the destroyers ‘don’t come down here, we’re not sure what’s going on.’ Eventually the flight dumped their ordnance and headed home, logging 4.4 hours night time with 4.2 actual instruments. This flight was typical and at least one flight got beneath scattered clouds as the weather gradually improved toward morning but no pilots reported seeing any torpedo boats on these flights which continued through the night into mid-morning hours. The last DD-support flight that night was a section flown by Mel Blixt and Kenn Brooks. This was also Mel’s first flight as VA-145’s new C.O. They launched about 0400, logging an uneventful 5.1 hours, a quarter of it night time, and recovered a little after 0900.
Preparations for Pierce Arrow: Tom Durant, VA-145 Maintenance Officer, asleep after his night flight, was roused shortly before dawn [5 August] by the Maintenance Chief knocking on his stateroom door saying he needed Tom to test hop 135332 at first light. He logged a 1.5-hour test flight in 135332 and certified the aircraft now in UP status. Tom returned to the ready room midday and was greeted by the strike group getting ready to man aircraft. Tom recalled asking Jim Hardie where they were going and the response was, “Up to bomb some boat yard.” Kurt Anderson, the Squadron Duty Officer on 5 August, didn’t get to fly on this auspicious day but assisted preparations in Ready Room 4 for the historic flights.
BuNo 135332 Strikes Lac Chao: The squadron Operations Officer, Sam Catterlin, led a flight of four aircraft ordered to strike the PT boats located in an estuary at Lac Chao. The Air Intelligence Officer [AIO] gave them good aerial photos of the target and they launched about 1300 in partly cloudy weather. Sam led the flight, flying A-1H NK507/BuNo 135332, with wingman Gary Hopps, section leader Jim Hardie, and his wingman Dick Sather. They launched from Constellation with four LAU-3 [19 x 2.75” folding-fin aircraft rockets] pods each, plus full ammunition for their four 20-mm cannons. As soon as they had a little altitude, they could see smoke from the burning fuel depot at Vinh which had been hit two hours earlier by aircraft from Ticonderoga. As Sam’s flight approached the coast near Lac Chao, a thundercloud was between the target and the Spad division. Jim Hardie reported that they circled to the north and, as they cleared the clouds near Lac Chao, they spotted two larger gunboats about a half-mile from the coast and north of Lac Chao. The boats were firing at the flight as they approached. Sam led the flight to attack from northwest to southeast, pulling up out to sea. As they rolled in, the pilots saw three other boats to their north partly hidden by offshore rocks. Those boats were firing at the Spad flight too. The pilots attacked in single file but reported that they remained at fairly close intervals.
One A-1H Damaged, One Downed. On the first attack, Jim Hardie fired one rocket pod on the left boat and, as he pulled up, he felt a big ‘thump’ as if someone had kicked the underside of the aircraft on the port side. His hydraulic gauge fluctuated wildly so he pulled the hydraulic bypass handle. He then noticed fuel streaming by his port drop tank so he jettisoned the tank, fearing fire from tracer rounds. Jim reported his aircraft checked OK except for the hydraulics, so he turned back to attack the targets. Sam, Gary, and Dick were on their last rocket run from northwest to southeast when Jim saw an explosion in the air and the fireball crash into the sea. It was Dick Sather, the first Navy combat loss of the air campaign. Jim fired another LAU-3A pod as Sam and Gary were clearing to sea. Jim then reversed and went back to attack the boats again and saw both smoking and one dead in the water. He fired his two remaining rocket pods on the moving boat and cleared to sea; Sam reported that Jim’s rockets put the second boat out of action. Sam and Gary checked Jim’s aircraft visually and saw only one hole in the area of the port wing root.
Return to Ship: Meanwhile, four A-4’s from VA-144 arrived and put the other three PT boats out of action. The A-4’s left first to return to Constellation and Sam led Gary Hopps and Jim Hardie back to the ship. Jim landed last as he had no flaps or brakes due to his hydraulic system damage. Jim trapped and held in place by tension on the arresting cable while the flight deck crew and plane captain chocked his wheels and put ‘stiff knees’ on his landing gear. It was a long day’s activity; the Skyraider strike pilots each logged 5.5 hours of flight time. Jim commented that had he not made it aboard, he still had fuel to bingo to DaNang with gear and flaps down. Back in Ready Four, Jim was very upset with their squadron AIO, LTJG Jim Farquhar, who, before the mission, said the North Vietnamese gunners’ aim would be poor because of lack of practice.
Strike on Hon Gay: Hal Griffith led a second strike of four A-1s to the northern-most Pierce Arrow target at Hon Gay. Bob Hansen was his wingman with Jim Crummer section leader and Jim Thigpin as his wingman. Because of insufficient time, the ordnance gang was unable to load and fuse the desired ordnance load, thus this strike also went with a less than desirable load of four LAU-3 and full ammo for their 20-mm guns. The Spads launched first and proceeded at low level toward the targets; the A-4 Scooters launched later and were to arrive on station at Hon Gay for a coordinated strike. Unfortunately, the A-4s arrived early and started the attack. Buy the time the Skyraiders arrived the PT boats were underway and maneuvering. Antiaircraft fire was relatively heavy and varied from small automatic weapons to 37 mm, 57 mm, and some 85 mm weapons. The A-1H pilots reported doing the most damage with their 20-mm cannons. All four Spads returned safely after the 5.4-hour flight. A-4 pilot Everett Alverez was shot down and captured on this strike at Hon Gay.
BuNo 135332 Transferred & Stricken: After 3,455 flight hours of loyal service in seven Navy Attack Squadrons and WestPac deployments aboard four Attack Carriers, Douglas Skyraider A-1H BuNo 135332 was transferred to the USAF [MASCD] at Davis-Monthan AFB, Tucson, Arizona on 19 September 1967. She was officially stricken from Navy lists on 14 November 1967. USAF & VNAF Service: For the next five years she served in Air Force units at Hurlburt Field, Florida and in Southeast Asia mostly training Vietnamese Air Force [VNAF] pilots. BuNo 135332 was transferred to the VNAF on 25 August 1972 and operated by them until the demise of the U.S.-backed government in April 1975, whereupon she was evacuated to the Royal Thailand Air Force Base Takli.
Rescued and Given to Smithsonian: On 9 August 1978, a U.S. Air Force letter transferred aircraft ownership from RTAF Takli to “Yesterday’s Air Force” [YAF], a California aircraft preservation group. Three other A-1Hs were also rescued from the RTAF at that time. Mr. David C. Tallichet, YAF & Military Aircraft Restoration Corp., flew 135332/N39148 from Long Beach to Andrews AFB and traded our Spad to the Smithsonian on 2 May 1983 for a C-123K his group wanted more.
Status of BuNo 135332: This Skyraider has been at NASM’s Garber facility for 25 years and still sports the USAF Sandy camouflage she wore during her last years of service. Navy veterans have interacted with NASM over the last four years to advance the cause that the most significant, documented historic action of this aircraft was her 5 August 1964 Pierce Arrow mission with the Navy and to urge her refurbishment and display to the American people accordingly.
Responses have fairly consistently stated that the decision on presentation of the aircraft will not be made until the new restoration building of Phase II at Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles is completed in 2011 or later and that the decision will consider “all relevant facts related to the rich history of this particular artifact…” Thus, as of mid-2008, we are at an impasse concerning the fate of our historic Navy aircraft, BuNo 135332.
History of BuNo 135332:
Delivered to US. Navy as 135332, Aug. 1954.
– Accepted by BuAer Rep El Segundo under BuAer Contract No. 52960, Aug. 12, 1954.
– Transferred to FasRon 12, NAS Miramar, Aug. 17, 1954
– Transferred to VA-125, NAS Miramar, Oct. 18, 1954.
— Total flight hours 183.
— VA-125 deploys for WestPac cruise aboard USS Hancock (CVA 19), Aug. 31, 1955.
— VA-125 back at NAS Miramar, March 14, 1956.
– Transferred to Overhaul & Repair Facility, NAS Alameda, March 27, 1956
– Transferred to VA-96, NAS Alameda, Aug. 8, 1956
– Transferred to VA-196, NAS Alameda, Feb. 27, 1957
— VA-196 deploys for WestPac cruise aboard USS Bon Homme Richard (CVA 31), June 12, 1957
— VA-196 back at NAS Alameda, Dec. 9, 1957
– Transferred to Storage Facility, NAS Litchfield Park, May 19, 1958
— Total flight hours 1,534.
– Transferred to Overhaul & Repair Facility, NAS Quonset Point, Aug. 16, 1963
– Transferred to VA-145, NAS Alameda, Feb. 16, 1964
— VA-145 deploys for WestPac cruise aboard USS Constellation (CVA 64), May 31, 1964
— Pierce Arrow strikes against North Vietnam; Gulf of Tonkin Incident response. Aug. 5, 1964.
— VA-145 back at NAS Alameda, Feb. 28, 1965
– Transferred to VA-95, NAS Lemoore, May 25, 1965.
– Transferred to VA-122, NAS Lemoore, June 21, 1965.
– Transferred to Naval Aircraft Repair Facility, Quonset Point, Feb. 4, 1966.
– Transferred to NAS Lemoore, May 9, 1966.
— Total flight hours 2,665.
– Transferred to VA-52, NAS Lemoore, May 20, 1966.
– VA-52 deploys for WestPac cruise board USS Ticonderoga (CVA 14), Oct. 15, 1966.
– Transferred to NAS Cubi Point, April 28, 1967.
— Total flight hours 3,455.
– Transferred to MASCD, Davis-Monthan AFB, Tucson, Sept. 19, 1967.
— Total flight hours 3,455
– Stricken from Navy lists, Nov. 14, 1967.
Transferred to US Air Force as 135332, 1967.
– Served in 4410th and 4407th Combat Crew Training Squadrons and
1st Special Operations Wing at Hurlburt Field, FL
— Used to train Vietnamese Air Force [VNAF] pilots, 1967-1972.
— Deployed to SEASIA.
– Transferred to VNAF as 135332, Aug. 25, 1972.
— Flown to Thailand to avoid capture.
— Transferred by USAF letter from RTAF, Takli, to “Yesterday's Air Force".
Mr. David C. Tallichet [YAF] also rescued three other A1-Hs from the RTAF, Aug. 9, 1978.
Yesterdays Air Force, Chino, CA, 1978-1983.
– Registration N32612 reserved but not taken up.
– Stored in original military configuration, Long Beach, CA, Jan. 1980-1983.
Military Aircraft Restoration Corp, Chino, CA, 1983-1992.
– Registered as N39148.
– Ferried by David C. Tallichet from Long Beach to Andrews AFB, April 30 to May 2, 1983.
National Air & Space Museum, Washington D.C., 1983-2008
– Traded to NASM for C-123K.
– Stored, awaiting restoration at Gerber Facility, MD.
Ten surviving pilots contributed to this record and are listed in order of appearance in the text. Those that contributed pilot narratives are indicated by ***. Their personal recollections are blended into a third-person presentation herein with as little editing of their original words as possible.
More on the SPAD and it's valliant history can be found here at Skyraider.Org.