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Operation Bolo: Smokejumper Shoots Down MiG-21

by Fred Donner (Missoula ’59) |

On Jan. 3, 1967, I was the Air America airline station traffic manager at Danang, South Vietnam, for just over a year. In 1964 I spent the last of my five years as an Air Force lieutenant as commander of Detachment 5 of the 8th Aerial Port Squadron at Bien Hoa Air Base, South Vietnam, doing essentially the same kind of work. (Between Bien Hoa and Danang, I flew as aerial observer on the St. Joe NF in 1965.)

In the Air Force before and during Vietnam and in Air America during Vietnam, I occasionally ran into smokejumpers: Jack Cahill (MSO-58), Don Hansen (MSO-57), Harold Hoem (MSO-57), Carl Gidlund (MSO-58), Karl Seethaler (MSO-55), Ralph Myers (MSO-55), Bob Ingrum (MSO-59), Wade Irwin (MSO-59), Jerry Daniels (MSO-58), and Max Allen (MSO-48) among them. I have probably forgotten some.

Collectively, they told me many smokejumper stories concerning Laos, Tibet, Thailand, Arctic ice islands, Bay of Pigs, Indonesia, and more that I thought were mostly male bovine feces, the “lingua franca” of smokejumpers, but that I learned in later years were basically true. However, the biggest smokejumper story out of Vietnam was yet to happen.

On the stated Jan. 3, I picked up my Stars and Stripes Pacific newspaper and read that “Air Force Captain John Stone of Coffeeville, Mississippi,” had downed a MiG over North Vietnam the previous day. I am sure there are many “John Stones” in the world, but when I read from “Coffeeville, Mississippi,” there was no doubt it was the John Stone (MSO-56) that I knew in Missoula.

Little did I know, until recent years, that his downing of a MiG was the culmination of a much larger story. Basically, John had just changed the course of the air war over North Vietnam. John or “JB,” whom I see now at reunions and on volunteer trail crews, is too modest to call attention to himself. JB’s only drawback was best told by his close friend Roland Pera (MSO-56) describing their trips together mountain climbing in Colorado (“Smokejumper” January 2010) and to the Grand Canyon (“Smokejumper” April 2011), when Roland essentially said that in 1956 he could not understand John’s Mississippi accent, and this had only improved somewhat over the years.

Like most jumpers, JB is a person of many talents. He was a college geology graduate before flying F-102’s and F-4’s for ten years in the regular Air Force. After the Air Force JB flew F-100’s and A-7’s in the Colorado Air National Guard for 17 years, during which time he went to law school. He practiced law for 14 years before joining Continental Airlines at age 54, but he didn’t have enough seniority to make captain before age 60 and mandatory retirement. Today, JB and his wife, Tommi, divide their time between homes in Breckenridge, CO, and San Antonio, TX, while JB does some real estate work. He can be reached at

Fortunately, the background of JB’s MiG downing is told in a book. The Bolo story is also available on DVD # 76932 from the History Channel. However, the History Channel erroneously calls JB a “brigadier general,” for which JB has taken no end of grief from his alleged friends. JB is an Air National Guard-retired colonel.

Herewith the Bolo story from “FAST MOVERS: Jet Pilots and the Vietnam Experience” by John Darrell Sherwood. Copyright © 2000 by John Darrell Sherwood. Reprinted by permission of Free Press, a Division of Simon and Schuster, Inc., NY.

* * * * *

Ubon, Thailand, October 1966
For the men of the Eighth Tactical Fighter Wing at Ubon, the summer of 1966 was a season of bitterness. Mired in the fruitless bombing campaign known as Rolling Thunder, the Eighth Wing pined to strike the North Vietnamese airfields, factories, and command-and-control facilities in Hanoi, but neither the political leadership in Washington nor the local Air Force commanders in Saigon and Ubon would hear of it.

To President Lyndon Johnson and his key advisors, the bombing of North Vietnam was primarily a political tool, its purpose being to convince the North Vietnamese to give up their support of the insurgency in the South. One accomplished this aim, reasoned Johnson, by attacking the North's supply routes to the South, not by waging total war against its urban and industrial areas. But for the U.S. military pilots this strategy proved exasperating. Rolling Thunder's limited portfolio of targets meant that the North Vietnamese military could easily predict where U.S. planes would attack and could concentrate their defenses accordingly, leaving other areas undefended.

If that were not enough, the Eighth Wing's lackluster commander, Colonel Joe Wilson, compelled his pilots to fly standard routes and times, and to carry standard bombloads. Anxious to please his superiors in Saigon and Washington, Wilson believed that such standardization would result in a higher sortie rate for the Eighth Wing. Higher sortie rates, in turn, would allow Air Force Secretary Harold Brown to petition Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara for more money for the Air Force. This program to increase sortie rates, called Rapid Roger, ran from August 1966 through February 1967, and greatly undermined morale at the Eighth Wing.

"It was shitty, it wasn't the way to efficiently win a war," recalled "slick-wing" Captain John Stone about Rapid Roger. (Junior pilots in the Air Force call themselves "slick wings" because their wing insignias didn't have a star above them like those of senior and command pilots.) The predictability of the missions annoyed Stone the most: "There were no tactics, everyone went the same route, the same time of day, the enemy knew we were coming." Another junior captain, Ralph Wetterhahn, complained that to achieve a rate of 1.25 sorties per aircraft per day Rapid Roger compelled the men of the Eighth to fly night missions -- dangerous missions usually flown by specialized night squadrons. Moreover daytime sleeping, in un-air-conditioned quarters with no blackout curtains, meant that in the hot, humid, mosquito-ridden conditions of Thailand pilots simply could not get enough sleep.

* * * *

The opportunity to "beat the shit" out of North Vietnam came in late 1966. From September through December of that year, five Thailand-based USAF fighters were lost to MiGs. Robin Olds, upset by these losses, approached John Stone, the wing tactics officer, and asked him to help come up with a plan for defeating the MiG threat. This plan would be known as Bolo.

Captain John Stone possessed neither the rank nor the background to become the lead planner for the largest, most complex fighter operation in the Vietnam War to date. A country boy from Coffeeville, Mississippi, Stone graduated from the University of Mississippi in 1959 and nearly joined the Forest Service in Montana. He loved the excitement of fighting fires, but figured that flying fighters with the Air Force was probably even more exciting. After an assignment flying the F-102 at Soesterberg RNAFB in Holland, "eating lots of Indonesian food and drinking Indonesian beer," Stone came back to the United States with four other 102 drivers to train in the F-4 and head to Southeast Asia. Of this original group only Stone would escape being shot down or killed.

One should not conclude, however, that John Stone could be characterized as cautious. Before he headed to Thailand, Stone's base commander at George AFB in California asked him and another pilot to ferry some F-4s to Nellis AFB. Stone ended up flying an unauthorized low-level flight to Nellis that knocked down a power cable and destroyed a radome on route. Needless to say, his base commander wrote him up for a formal reprimand known as an Article 15. When Stone returned to base, he walked into the commander's office and refused to sign off on the Article 15. Like Olds, this jock hated the "chickenshit" of the peacetime Air Force and refused to play by the rules. The Air Force, desperate for pilots in Southeast Asia, simply threw up its hands and sent the young Turk to Ubon to join the Eighth Wing.

At Ubon, John Stone thrived. Olds allowed his men to raise hell to their hearts' content as long as they fought the war professionally. For aggressive warriors like Stone, such unorthodox leadership was just what they required to succeed; in the end, Stone would end up spending more time in the Wing Operations area than in the bar. It was here that Stone and Olds began to hit it off. As he began to conceptualize the Bolo plan, Stone confronted several major challenges. First, the American rules of engagement during this period did not allow for airfield attacks. All MiG kills would have to be made in the air -- a distinct problem since MiGs rarely came up to challenge flights of F-4s. Instead, they preferred to attack the less maneuverable Air Force F-105 Thunderchief, or "Thud." Heavily laden with bombs, and flying in tight formations with large blind spots in their rear quadrants, the Thuds made perfect bait for the fast, highly maneuverable MiG-17. During December of 1966, 20 percent of all Thud strikes against the Hanoi area had to jettison their bombs before reaching their targets due to MiG attacks.

MiGs could differentiate F-105s from Phantoms from the electronic signature emitted by their QRC-160 jamming pod. The jamming pod, though, was a necessary evil for the 105s because it jammed the Fansong range-finding radar of the SA-2 surface-to-air missile (SAM) battery. According to Stone, the QRC-160 transformed a blip on a SAM operator's radar to a solid line. When a flight of four or more aircraft flew with their pods turned on in a tight formation, these solid lines blurred together and rendered the Fansong technology useless.

Stone believed that if the Eighth Wing installed the QRC-160s on a flight of 28 F-4s, the MiGs could be tricked into thinking that those planes were the more vulnerable F-105s and attack. Along with Major J. D. Covington, Lieutenant Joe Hicks, and Captain Ralph Wetterhahn, Captain John Stone set up shop in a tiny storage room in the rear of the operations shed and worked on the plan for two weeks. He pulled several all-nighters just planning the routes and the timing.

When a coherent plan finally emerged, Olds flew to a commanders' conference in the Philippine mountain resort town of Baguio. The Pacific Air Forces Commander, General Hunter Harris, was conducting a farewell tour of his fiefdom and all Southeast Asia (SEA) commanders were required to appear at Baguio for a series of "stupid briefings by a bunch of staff officers from Hickam AFB, Hawaii." It was just the type of event that under ordinary circumstances Olds would have had little patience for.

During the conference, Olds nervously approached General Momyer, the Seventh Air Force Commander, with his plan, but was in essence told to "get lost." A fighter pilot who had fought in World War II and Korea, Momyer possessed a keen intellect, but had a reputation for being a "terrible people person." Furthermore, his chief of staff, Frank Nichols, despised Robin Olds. "That little bastard bad-mouthed everything we did in the Eighth," Olds complained. Nevertheless, shortly thereafter a call came into Eighth Wing headquarters. "General Momyer wants to talk to you, get your ass down here."

Olds flew down to Saigon with Stone that day and briefed Seventh Air Force on the plan. Major General Donovan F. Smith, Momyer's director of operations, loved it and sold it to the rest of the higher headquarters. "Boy, the whole Air Force jumped through its rear end getting us ready for that," Olds recalled. "It was marvelous. The whole supply system and the whole Air Force turned out to support this Bolo mission."

Bolo, named after a Filipino traditional knife, called for three separate strike forces to attack North Vietnam. An "Iron Hand" force of F-105s from Takhli would go in first and attack the SAM sites near Kep, Cat Bi, and Phuc Yen airfields in North Vietnam. An East Force of F-4s from Da Nang would cover the Kep and Cat Bi airfields east of Hanoi and block any MiGs that attempted to retreat to China. The heart of the ruse, though, would be the pod-equipped F-4Cs of the Eighth Wing. These aircraft, known as the West Force, were to attack MiGs coming from the Phuc Yen and Gia Lam air bases just west of Hanoi. The West Force emulated an F-105 Thud strike in every way imaginable. It followed similar approach routes, flew at F-105 airspeeds, and used F-105 tankers to refuel. Overall the Bolo task force consisted of 56 F-4Cs, 24 F-105s, 16 F-104s, plus numerous supporting aircraft: EB-66s for jamming, KC-135s for refueling, helicopters for rescue.

Like the conductor of a symphony orchestra, Stone was mainly concerned about timing. Each instrument in his elaborate symphony needed to play its part at just the right moment. To prevent the MiGs from landing, Stone wanted a flight of F-4Cs flying over each airfield every five minutes for the entire duration of the operation. The MiGs would either be shot down or run out of fuel; escape was out of the question. For three days prior to the mission, aircrews received special briefings for Bolo, originally scheduled for 1 January 1967.

Airman Clinton and the maintenance crews worked nearly 27 hours straight before the mission. "They made us clean every aircraft, take everything off, every rack, bomb, missile, everything!" Olds and Stone told the crews nothing about the mission, and expected the crews to load the ECM pods on the aircraft with little prior training. "In that period of time," according to Clinton, "the only time you flew ECM on an F-4 was if you were flying with nuclear weapons." Because the pods ran on the F-4s' nuclear circuitry, Olds ordered the crew to do a "GWM-4" test of those circuits -- a test run only in the event of nuclear war. "'What the hell's going on?'" thought Clinton. "Rumors kind of rolled around."

On 1 January, Robin Olds delayed the mission for 24 hours due to poor weather over Hanoi. Annoyed at having stayed sober for New Year's Eve, many of the Eighth's pilots (including Olds, briefly) went directly to the bar and began to party. At "Oh dark thirty" on the night of the first, Stone and Olds decided that the mission was a go. Usually the coolest hand in the outfit, John Stone disgorged his dinner of liver and onions outside the briefing room that evening. With no sleep that night and no food in his stomach, Stone would go up the next day and shoot down a MiG.

The Eighth Wing's flights that day were all named after automobiles such as Ford, Plymouth, Tempest, and Rambler. Robin Olds, naturally flying in "Olds Flight," led the entire stream of fighters that day. The weather remained "shitty," with heavy cloud cover over Hanoi. Olds, knowing he might only get one shot at executing this plan, pressed on. He led the flight to a point twenty miles from Hanoi, and called "Green Up!" -- F-105 jargon for "Arm bombs." Much to Olds' surprise, no MiGs showed up to meet the decoy flight. Olds 3 then picked up a fast radar return about seventeen miles from his 12 o'clock. The MiG was closing at a very high rate, indicating a head-on situation. The MiG zoomed under the flight and ducked into a cloud layer. Olds, continuing to lead the flight toward Thud Ridge, spotted several MiG-21s coming up through the cloud layer. He immediately initiated a hard left turn to gain a firing position. The fight was on. For Olds, this would be his first engagement with an enemy jet; in his excitement he almost "went Winchester" (shot all his missiles) trying to get his first MiG.

First, he salvoed two radar-homing AIM-7Es at minimum range. The missiles failed to guide. Next, he launched two heat-seeking AIM-9 Sidewinders at the MiG-21, now a mile and a half away, but these missiles guided on the clouds instead of the MiG. Meanwhile, another MiG-21 started closing on the flight from the rear quarter and started firing its cannon at Olds 3. Wetterhahn, flying as Olds' wingman in Olds 2, remembered that moment distinctly. "I'm watching this MiG about to kill us," Wetterhahn recalled, "and my backseater's [First Lieutenant Jerry Sharp] getting a little bananas." But he stuck with his leaders.

After Olds' Sidewinders failed to guide, Wetterhahn immediately salvoed two AIM-7Es at the MiG in front. The first missile simply fell off the rail, but the second missile did guide and exploded just behind the MiG. "I saw this fireball behind his tail," Wetterhahn explained, "and I thought, 'God damn, I missed him!'" The MiG continued flying for a few precious seconds, and then went end over end, "shedding large portions of the aft section. The aircraft, now emitting black smoke, went into a flat spin, falling through the clouds like a leaf." The Sparrow's warhead, which consisted of expanding rods, had unfolded like a carpenter's ruler and, in the words of Wetterhahn, "basically cut the ass end off this MiG-21."

"Break left, we've got one at six!" Wetterhahn shouted to Olds as soon as Wetterhahn's missiles launched. All three planes then broke left and the MiG overshot. Olds 4, flown by Captain Walter Raedeker, then blasted this MiG-21 out of the sky with a Sidewinder.

As if this fight were not complex enough, another MiG popped up through clouds at Olds' ten-o'clock position and he again took a shot, this time with AIM-9 Sidewinders. "When the first MiG I fired at disappeared," he explained, "I slammed full afterburner and pulled in hard to gain position on this second MiG. I pulled the nose up high, about 45 degrees, inside his circle. Mind you, he was turning around to the left so I pulled the nose up high and rolled to the right. I got up on top of him and half upside down, hung there, and waited for him to complete more of his turn and timed it so that as I continued to roll down behind him, I'd be about 20 degrees angle off and about 4,500 to 5,000 feet behind him." As Olds pulled up low and behind the shiny MiG-21, he let it have his last two Sidewinders, one of which hit and took the delta-shaped wing off the airplane. What was once an aircraft outlined against a brilliant blue January sky became a twisting, corkscrewing, tumbling hunk of metal. No pilot ejected.

Four other pilots from the Eighth Wing would end up with MiG kills -- Everett Raspberry, Phil Combies, Lawrence Glynn, Jr., and of course John Stone -- for a wing record of seven kills in one day. Stone, flying in the number one slot of the third wave of West Force fighters (Rambler Flight), got his MiG from behind with an AIM-7E. So exhausted was John Stone that he didn't even bother with a victory roll that day. Why push his luck?

In all, Stone's Bolo plan helped raise the Air Force kill ratio from 2.6 to 1 when Olds came on board to 15 to 1 by the end of January 1967. It also whetted Robin Olds' appetite for more MiGs. Perhaps he would emerge as the only two-war ace of the Vietnam War. Robin began to "read every damn combat report written by any outfit that went to Route Pack 6." He even plotted MiG positions at his own desk so he would know "what the hell was happening up there." His hard work would pay off.