October 25, 2004

The Lore of the Corps
Marine fighters shot down MiG in Vietnam, at big cost

By Robert F. Dorr
Special to the Times

In a furious air battle over North Vietnam on Sept. 11, 1972, Marine aviators were “suckered” — as one described it — into a trap.
The Marines that day shot down a MiG-21 jet fighter, the only enemy aircraft downed during the Vietnam War by leathernecks flying a Marine aircraft.

But the cost was huge.

The star player in the drama was the robust, twin-engine F-4 Phantom fighter. The Marines used Phantoms to protect an aerial strike force from MiGs, and that gave them no real choice about being drawn into the battle.

“It was like ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade,’” said retired Col. John D. Cummings, referring to a British cavalry brigade’s suicidal attack into Russian guns during the Crimean War and the Alfred Lord Tennyson poem that memorialized it.

Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 333, called the “Shamrocks,” was deployed aboard the aircraft carrier America in the Gulf of Tonkin. This was another milestone — the only time during the Vietnam War that a Marine squadron deployed as part of a Navy carrier air wing.

Pilot Maj. Lee T. Lasseter and back-seat radar intercept officer Cummings, then a captain, launched from the America and flew into heavily defended North Vietnam. In a second aircraft were Capt. Scott Dudley and Capt. James Brady.

Things began badly when a planned rendezvous with a refueling tanker came too late. Dudley’s Phantom was only partly refueled. As a result of what Cummings called “miscommunication” with ships offshore, the two jets were sent to engage North Vietnamese MiG-21 fighters near Haiphong, North Vietnam, an area rife with enemy surface-to-air missiles.

In the book “MiG Killers of Yankee Station,” author Michael O’Connor quotes Dudley as preparing to fight. Seven miles from the MiGs, Dudley said, “I got an initial sighting on the MiGs. I don’t have atomic eyeballs or anything, but I just happened to look up and see a glint.”

Lasseter and Dudley each fired a Sparrow radar-guided missile at the lead MiG and missed.

Cummings was carrying a cassette tape recorder strapped to his harness. He recorded a confusing conversation with a radar picket ship during a 5-minute dogfight with the MiGs. Lasseter and Cummings fired four missiles without result before a MiG crossed their path and Lasseter saw a clean shot for a Sidewinder heat-seeking missile.

The missile struck the MiG solidly and blew apart everything aft of its cockpit.

Low on fuel as they disengaged, Lasseter and Cummings’ earphones boomed with warnings of enemy surface-to-air missiles being launched. The enemy missiles found both Marine targets, and all four leathernecks ejected, parachuting into the Gulf of Tonkin, where a helicopter rescued them.

Lasseter went on to become commander of VMFA-333. The squadron racked up a superb record during the remainder of the 1972 combat cruise.

“He wanted to get a MiG since he was a little kid,” Cummings said of Lasseter, who died in 1981.

Robert F. Dorr, an Air Force veteran, is the author of numerous books on Air Force topics, including “Air Force One.” E-mail him at robert.f.dorr@cox.net.