VFP-63 and the Vietnam War

Updated: April 18, 2013

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Lt Chuck Klusmann of VFP-63, was the first jet shot down and ejection of the air war in SE Asia.

According to his account (see link below): "It started on the first flight (over Laos - Webmaster) when I got shot up pretty bad and was on fire for about 20 min. I got that one back to the ship however running on fumes. It was an idle descent from 90 miles and 42,000 ft. I needed one shot of power in the groove to a trap." On a later flight (6 June), his aircraft was the 1st of 20 photo-Crusaders lost to enemy action in Vietnam.

LT Klusmann was shot down, became a prisoner of Laotian forces for 3 months, and made a daring escape.

LT Chuck Klusmann in cockpit of RF-8 and just after reaching a friendly village with the Lao (Boun Mi) who escaped with him.


The following is a condensed version of an article that appeared in the July issue of Proceedings, journal of the US Naval Institute in Annapolis, Maryland as printed in Air Force Magazine, October 1999. It was written by Commander Glenn Tierney, a retired US Navy fighter pilot. It was a quiet Sunday afternoon in Hawaii on 5 June 1964. . . .I was the assistant current air operations (Navy, J-3116) on the staff of the commander in chief, Pacific (CinCPac). Admiral Harry D. Felt. . . . My four-digit designator put me well down on the totem pole. As one of the few Navy pilots on the staff with any recent fleet experience, however, I wound up in the middle of things when the air war in Southeast Asia expanded.

After many months of indecision, on 23 May 1964 the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) finally authorized the Navy to conduct low-altitude photographic reconnaissance flights over the Plaine des Jarres [in Laos]. Within days, Photographic Squadron (VFP)-63 pilots began flying missions from the USS Kitty Hawk (CVA-63), which was operating from Yankee Station in the Gulf of Tonkin. Along with the authorization came orders that the RF-8 Crusader photo planes were to operate without armed escorts--even though the practice hand been standard operating procedure since World War II. . . . The potential problems with the flights were their frequency and Times Over Target (TOT), which were specified by the Secretary of Defense. For these missions, the TOTs were specified as every other day a 1 p.m. (Laotian time). Anyone could see that such a pattern created a built-in opportunity for the Pathet Lao to spring an ambush. . . . The telephone in my quarters rang late on that Sunday afternoon: "You asked me to call you whenever we had a problem with one of your projects [meaning overt and covert aerial reconnaissance]. We have a bad one," said Army Master Sergeant Duncan, in charge of communications in the CinCPac Command Center. . . . I automatically assumed that we had lost a Navy photo plane and pilot in the Plaine des Jarres; that day's TOT had been about an hour earlier. Duncan confirmed my fears: The pilot had been shot down and the escort pilot had seen him moving about. The Rescue Combat Air Patrol (ResCAP) from the ship had launched, he added quickly, but had been recalled because the "word" had come down that there was to be "No round-eye" [American] effort to rescue the pilot. I could not believe it. We had two Air America helicopters stationed on a hill about 20 miles away, on alert for just this purpose. . .

The ridiculous aspect of the order was that there were no other forces available. . . . For all practical purposes, at this point the photo pilot had been abandoned by the government that had sent him in harm's way. I called the JCS on the secure telephone and spoke with the Army brigadier general who was the duty flag officer. He confirmed the order. When I literally demanded to know who had issued such an order, he said he was not sure. I respectfully suggested that he find out as soon as possible and we would be calling him back, also ASAP. As I dropped the secure phone, I called my immediate boss, Marine Brigadier General George Bowman, our J-3/operations officer, but he was not at home. To hell with this, I said to myself, and I called Admiral Felt on his private line at his quarters in Makalapa, just down the hill; I was bypassing at least three other senior flag officers. The line was not secure, so I told him briefly that we had a serious problem in the PDJ.

'I'm on the way," he replied. Less than 10 minutes later, the JCS brigadier general was telling the admiral that the order had come from the Secretary of Defense himself. (Before he called the JCS Admiral Felt had instructed me to pick up a second secure phone and admonished me: "You listen; you do not speak.") . . . Admiral Felt spoke quietly: "General, get me the Secretary of Defense on this line immediately." . . . Several minutes later, sounding very wide awake, and almost jovial, Robert McNamara came on the line and asked Admiral Felt the reason for the call. Admiral Felt was never one to mince words. "Mr.Secretary, I have been told that you are aware that we just had a Navy photo pilot shot down in the Plaine des Jarres and that an order had been issued by your office that there was to be no 'round-eye' effort to rescue the pilot. Is that correct?" "That is correct, Admiral," McNamara answered. At this point Admiral Felt interrupted him: "May I ask by whose authority this order was issued?" "The recommendation came from State," McNamara replied, "and the Secretary of State and I discussed it and agreed that this is the best course of action." . . . Admiral Felt turned slightly to look at me.

He spoke again, very quietly but in a short clipped tone that I had never heard him use before. "Mr. Secretary, that is not a decision that can be made by the Secretary of State or the Secretary of Defense. The decision to rescue this pilot or not to rescue him can be made only by the Commander in Chief of the United States armed forces, and I am asking you to put me through to the Commander in Chief--now, sir." .

After a few seconds, McNamara started almost mumbling; he didn't argue the point, or refuse the request, but he made a big point that it was very late and that the President had just retired after a long evening.

Again, Admiral Felt quietly repeated his previous statement word for word. . . McNamara, without another word on the subject, said, "All right, I will ring the President."

Within 30 seconds President Johnson came on the line. . . . "Good morning, Admiral Felt, what can I do for you?" "Mr. President, we just had a Navy photo pilot shot down over the Plain des Jarres in northern Laos, but the Navy and Air America rescue effort has been called off by the Secretary of Defense as recommended by the Secretary of State. I just spoke to the Secretary of Defense and told him that this is a critical military decision that cannot be made by the Secretary of Defense or the Secretary of State, but one that can be made only by the Commander in Chief of the United States armed forces, and I am asking your permission to go in and rescue this pilot." Without hesitation, President Johnson came back, "Well, I'll be damned. Of course, go in and get him--and let me know how it comes out."

Note: The unfortunate Navy photo pilot was Lt. Charles F. Klusmann. He was not rescued but was captured. It was several hours before Air America helicopter crews reached the scene. Heavy ground fire drove off the lead aircraft; Klusmann waved off the second helo because it, too, was flying into an ambush. The Kitty Hawk's ResCAP never did show up; they had been recalled. The author writes that, in all probability, they would have neutralized the area by the time the helicopters arrived and the Air America crews would have been able to make the pickup.

Klusmann, captured on June 6, escaped from his captors on August 31. He is now a retired US Navy captain living in Pensacola, Florida.

[Webmaster's Note: Chuck Klusmann confirmed this story: "Hi Ken, The story is true. I was unaware of the story until about 10 years ago when I received a call from Glen Tierney (the author) asking for permission to write the article for proceedings. He and I had been stationed together at Pt Mugu. I was in VX-4 and he was at the Missile Center. He said that he couldn't talk about it then in the mid 60's. The story made the rounds back then and for some reason, has begun a second life. I have received dozens of emails about this in recent weeks. Obviously I have great feeling about Mr McNamara, none of them good." ]

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Created on ... May 18, 2006