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Phantom ace: Veterans Day memories of shootouts over Vietnam

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- "There are two saddest days in a pilot's life," says Chuck DeBellevue. "The day he walks out to an airplane knowing it's his last flight and the day he walks out to an airplane not knowing it's his last flight."

And he should know.

Col. Charles B. DeBellevue -- the highest scoring American ace of the Vietnam War and the last Air Force ace on active duty -- witnessed the last flights of both friend and foe.

"Every time we got in a dogfight, I knew somebody was going to die," he says. "I never thought it would be me, but I knew somebody would die. It was a certainty."

The memories of aerial combat are still fresh and so, too, are the lessons of a 30-year Air Force career that took Mr. DeBellevue from the cockpit to the command of units and air bases around the world. As the liaison between the Oklahoma State University OSU-Enterprise Center LLC's ASSET Program and the Oklahoma City Air Logistics Center, he is helping find hard to obtain parts for some of the same aircraft that helped him in combat. And he is also sharing his experiences and leadership lessons with the Air Force and other organizations.

"It takes the whole team to be successful," he explains. "Leadership is important, but so is followership."

The American way of working allows those who follow to also lead, he adds. Even in combat, he knew that if he were shot down, another would take his place. That can-do attitude of perseverance is important.

"It's all attitude," he says. "If you think you're going to fail, you probably will."

Failure wasn't a consideration when Mr. DeBellevue first enrolled at the then-University of Southwestern Louisiana in 1963. As a land-grant college, a two-year enrollment in the Reserve Officer Training Corps was mandatory.

He was among the first navigators assigned as a weapons systems officer to the Air Force's F-4 Phantom II, a two-seat fighter-bomber. He trained in California and did a stint at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C., becoming a navigator and instructor.

But with the war in Southeast Asia still simmering, he soon found himself ordered to Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base in Thailand, home to the 555th Tactical Fighter Squadron, the famed "Triple Nickel."

Arriving on the afternoon of Nov. 30, 1971, a young Captain DeBellevue flew the next day's morning mission. By the end of December, he'd flown all of his orientation flights and 28 combat missions, including seven in the then-off-limits area of North Vietnam.

Captain DeBellevue was one of initial three crews working as high-speed forward air controllers or Fast FACs, using smoke rockets to mark targets in North Vietnam for other bomb-carrying aircraft. It was dangerous work.

"I never thought I'd get shot down," he says. "At least, not at the start of the mission."

On one such Fast FAC mission, his plane took a 57mm anti-aircraft hit in the wing. Checking to make sure his pilot, Capt. Eddie Pickrel, was OK, he checked the airplane and called out a direction to head. There were no warning or caution lights indicating damage.

"It looked like a piece of Swiss cheese," he said. The shell should have exploded, taking apart the fuel-filled wing. "Everybody thought I was lucky, but somebody was watching over me."

After a four-year hiatus, Operation Linebacker would take the air war back to North Vietnam and into the teeth of the toughest air defense system in the world.

During the briefing for the initial mission, when the briefer announced that they would be going

"Downtown" to Hanoi, "you could hear a pin drop on the carpet," Mr. DeBellevue said. Captain DeBellevue and his flight would serve as fighter escort for the largest and most widespread air attacks against the North to date.

"We were the blocking force for those carrying the bombs," he said. "We always, always put ourselves in harm's way."

May 10, 1972, marked a watershed moment in the Vietnam War and for America's combat flyers. It was the largest air combat of the war, giving the Navy its first aces of the conflict and setting the team of Capt. Steve Ritchie and Mr. DeBellevue on the road to becoming aces.

"We were totally focused on the mission," Mr. DeBellevue said. "If you lose focus for even half a second, you could die."

Even the airplane was fine-tuned to perfection, with adjustments to the fuel controls to provide maximum thrust and performance.

"It's no use having a jet that's only operating at 90 percent," he explained. "F-4D 67-0463 was the fastest bird on base. One time, we came out of Hanoi at a thousand miles per hour. And it's not supposed to go that fast on the deck and neither was the MiG-21 that was chasing us." That plane ended the war with six kills and is now stationed at the Air Force Academy.

The action on May 10 started early, with the North Vietnamese scrambling MiGs to intercept the incoming bombers. Captains DeBellevue and Ritchie were the element lead in a flight, led by Maj. Robert Lodge and WSO 1st Lt. Roger Locher. They soon engaged MiG-21s as they crossed the Red River west of Hanoi. Lodge and Locher scored a kill, as did No. 2. Maneuvering hard, Ritchie and DeBellevue were soon in position and downed a MiG-21 with an AIM-7 Sparrow missile. It was their first kill of the war, but not their last. Lodge and Locher's F-4, while going after another MiG-21 failed to see the MiG-19s behind them. The 30mm bullets destroyed one engine and damaged the other and the F-4 headed down. Captain DeBellevue didn't see anyone eject from the flaming Phantom.

"All I saw was the plane slam into the side of the hill," he said. "We got three kills that day and they got one of us."

Lieutenant Locher wasn't dead, however. Ejecting at the last minute, he spent the next 23 days on the ground in North Vietnam dodging capture. But until his return, Captain DeBellevue was reminded of his missing friend and roommate.

The flying and fighting continued and in July Captains DeBellevue and Ritchie scored again, downing two more Migs in a brief but action-filled dogfight flying a newer E-model Phantom. Disco, the airborne radar controller, called Captain DeBellevue to tell them the radar returns had merged, meaning the Migs were too close to distinguish from the friendlies on the radar screen.

"For some reason I had a premonition the MiG-21 was out in front of us," Mr. DeBellevue said. "I looked up and spotted a black fly speck on a white cloud at about 11 o'clock, coming head on."

Jettisoning tanks and going to full afterburner, the fight was on.

"That fight, from the initial tally-ho to the second MiG-21 blowing up, was one minute and 29 seconds," he said. "It was the longest 89 seconds I'd ever spent."

Intelligence later revealed that the two MiGs he downed were probably flown by a pair of picked pilots trained exclusively to hunt down the American aces. For a time, he said, the squadron had several bogus names on the daily flight roster to fool enemy intelligence as to when he and Captain Ritchie would fly.

"Then we decided we wanted them to come after us," he added.

In August, Captain DeBellevue scored his fourth -- and Captain Ritchie's fifth -- MiG kill with a long-range missile shot. As an ace with five kills, Captain Ritchie was grounded by higher command but Captain DeBellevue continued his missions, flying with Capt. John Madden. Flying with a new pilot didn't worry Captain DeBellevue. They all trained hard together and made sure their equipment was ready.

"We hand-picked all the guys that flew with us and I picked the same airplane if it was ready," he explained. "You got to know the people you're flying with. When they clear their throat, you know what they mean."

In September, after jumping a MiG-21 in the traffic pattern at Phuc Yen Air Base, which the element lead shot down, Captain DeBellevue intercepted two MiG-19s and scored his fifth and sixth kills of the conflict, making him the highest scoring American ace of the war. But on landing at Udorn, his combat days were over.

"I got grounded from combat as soon as I landed from the last kill," he said.

The next day, he was on a flight home for a new assignment and new challenges. He stopped at Pacific Air Forces Headquarters on the way home where he received the Air Force Cross, three Silver Stars, five Distinguished Flying Crosses and one Air Medal. Over the course of his 30-year career, Mr. DeBellevue would earn his pilot's wings, become a colonel and commander of air bases in Japan and at home. He commanded Space Shuttle recovery missions as base commander of Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., and finally concluded his career where it started -- in ROTC, as commander of the ROTC detachment at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

"That was my payback," he explained. "I figured I owed the Air Force something for everything they've given me."

Being in combat and in the close confines of the cockpit bred a special relationship between the crews and he is still in contact with many of his colleagues.

"They say never make friends in combat," he said "You make your best friends in combat. They're the ones keeping you alive. And it's mutual."

The shot-down Roger Locher survived his ordeal behind enemy lines and is a close friend today, recently attending the wedding of Mr. DeBellevue's daughter.

"The people that fight with us and for us," he says, "you couldn't ask for better people." They know the real cost of freedom.