Name: Ralph Carol Balcom
Rank/Branch: Colonel/US Air Force
Unit: 421st Tactical Fighter Squadron,              
388th Tactical Fighter Wing
Korat Airbase, Thailand

Date of Birth: 24 December 1933
Home of Record: Seattle, WA
Date of Loss: 15 May 1966
Country of Loss: Laos
Loss Coordinates: 171200N 1064000E (XE100100)
Click coordinates to view maps

Status in 1973: Missing In Action
Category: 1
Aircraft/Vehicle/Ground: F105D
Other Personnel in Incident: (none missing)


SYNOPSIS: The principle Air Force tactical strike aircraft during the Vietnam War was the Republic F105 Thunderchief, nicknamed a “Thud.” It was the first supersonic tactical fighter-bomber designed from scratch and the largest single-seat, single-engine combat aircraft in history. Easily recognized by its large bomb bay and unique swept-forward engine inlets located in the wing roots, it was mass-produced after the Korean War. The first Thud to exceed the speed of sound did so on 22 October 1955 in spite of its underpowered Pratt & Whitney J57 stopgap engine. Production of the F-105 finished in 1965 with the tandem-seat F model, which was designed as a Wild-Weasel Electronic Countermeasures (ECM) attack aircraft. The F-105 served throughout Southeast Asia, particularly during Rolling Thunder operations.

On 15 May 1966, then Captain Ralph C. Balcom was the pilot of the lead F105D (serial #61-0174) in a flight of 5 conducting a morning armed reconnaissance mission over Quang Binh Province, North Vietnam. The mission area was known as Tally Ho and covered that sector of North Vietnam bordered on the south by the demilitarized zone (DMZ), on the east by the coastline, on the west by the Laotian border and on the north by an imaginary line drawn from the coast to the border 30 miles north of the DMZ.

When the flight arrived in the target area, Capt. Balcom established voice contact with the onsite Airborne Battlefield Command and Control Center (ABCCC) to obtain current mission data. Due to low cloud cover over the primary target, the ABCCC directed Capt. Balcom to have his flight drop their ordnance on Route 1A, the primary road running north/south just inland from the coastline, south of the major port city of Dong Hoi

.At 0950 hours, Ralph Balcom transmitted that he had dropped his bombs and was heading for home. Other flight members saw his aircraft climbing for altitude toward the west before disappearing into the clouds approximately 10 miles southwest of Dong Hoi. During the return flight to Korat, another pilot in the flight reported hearing an emergency beeper signal for a short time emanating from the ground below, but there was no indication of who initiated the signal.

When no further voice contact could be established with Capt. Balcom and his aircraft failed to return to base by the time his Thud’s fuel would have been exhausted, the flight leader was declared overdue. A large scale search and rescue (SAR) mission was immediately initiated.

An electronic and visual search was conducted in and around the area west and southwest of Dong Hoi, but it failed to produce any sign of the flight leader or his aircraft. Likewise, none of the aircrews participating in the search heard the beeper signal reported being heard earlier in the day. At the time the formal search operation was terminated, Ralph Balcom was declared Missing in Action. At the same time Capt. Balcom was declared missing, the loss location was determined to be in the area where he was last seen as his aircraft climbed into the cloud cover southwest of Dong Hoi, North Vietnam.

On an unknown date some time after the loss, US intelligence intercepted at least one Pathet Lao radio broadcast reporting the downing of an F-105 on 15 May 1966 in the sector west of the Ban Karai Pass. Capt. Balcom’s Thunderchief was the only F-105 lost on that date.

After Operation Homecoming in 1973, a team from the Joint Personnel Resolution Center (JPRC) reviewed Ralph Balcom’s casualty record. After a thorough examination for his record, they recommended a correction in the country of loss be made from North Vietnam to Laos. Part of the basis for this conclusion and correction was due to the Pathet Lao broadcast. Further, the broadcast indicated that the Thud was downed in rugged jungle covered mountains that were heavily infested with NVA troops approximately 6 miles northwest of Route 912, 8 miles southwest of the Lao/North Vietnamese border, 10 miles due west of the Ban Karai Pass and 41 miles west-southwest of Dong Hoi.

The Ban Karai Pass was one of two primary ports of entry used by the communists onto the Ho Chi Minh Trail. When North Vietnam began to increase its military strength in South Vietnam, NVA and Viet Cong troops again intruded on neutral Laos for sanctuary, as the Viet Minh had done during the war with the French some years before. This border road was used by the Communists to transport weapons, supplies and troops from North Vietnam into South Vietnam, and was frequently no more than a path cut through the jungle covered mountains. US forces used all assets available to them to stop this flow of men and supplies from moving south into the war zone.

If Ralph Balcom died as a result of his loss, he has the right to have his remains returned to his family, friends and country. However, if he survived, he most certainly could have been captured by enemy forces known to be operating throughout the region in which he vanished and his fate, like that of other Americans who remain unaccounted for in Southeast Asia, could be quite different. Either way, there is every reason to belief the North Vietnamese and/or Laotians could return him or his remains any time they had the desire to do so.

Since the end of the Vietnam War, over 21,000 reports of American prisoners, missing and otherwise unaccounted for have been received by our government. Many of these reports document LIVE American Prisoners of War remaining captive throughout Southeast Asia TODAY.

Fighter pilots in Vietnam and Laos were called upon to fly in many dangerous circumstances, and were prepared to be wounded, killed or captured. It probably never occurred to them that they could be abandoned by the country they proudly served.