DRAEGER, WALTER FRANK, JR.

Name: Walter Frank Draeger, Jr. 
Rank/Branch: Captain/US Air Force 
Unit: Detachment 10, 1131st Special Activities Squadron 




Date of Birth: 28 September 1933
Home of Record: Deerfield, WI
Date of Loss: 04 April 1965 
Country of Loss: North Vietnam
Loss Coordinates: 195102N 1055134E (WG930790)
Click coordinates to view(4) maps

Status in 1973: Killed in Action/Body Not Recovered 
Category: 2
Aircraft/Vehicle/Ground: A1H "Skyraider"
Other Personnel In Incident: (none missing) 

REMARKS:  CRASH OW-SRCH NEGAT-J

SYNOPSIS:  With its fantastic capability to carry a wide range of ordnance (8,000 pounds of external armament), great flight range (out to 3,000 miles), and the ability to absorb punishment, the single-seat Douglas A1 Skyraider became one of the premier performers in the close air support and attack mission role (nickname: Spad) and RESCAP mission role (nickname: Sandy). The Skyraider served the Air Force, Navy and Marines faithfully throughout the war in Southeast Asia.

The Thanh Hoa Railroad and Highway Bridge, spanning the Song Ma River, is located three miles north of Thanh Hoa, the capital of Annam Province, North Vietnam. It is a replacement for the original French-built bridge destroyed by the Viet Minh in 1945 - they simply loaded two locomotives with explosives and ran them together in the middle of the bridge.

In 1957, the North Vietnamese rebuilt the bridge. The new bridge, completed in 1964, was 540 feet long, 56 feet wide, and about 50 feet above the river. The Vietnamese called it Ham Rong (the Dragon's Jaw), and Ho Chi Minh himself attended its dedication. The bridge had two steel thru-truss spans that rested in the center on a massive reinforced concrete pier 16 feet in diameter, and on concrete abutments at the other ends. Hills on both sides of the river provided solid bracing for the structure. Between 1965 and 1972, eight concrete piers were added near the approaches to give additional resistance to bomb damage. A one-meter gauge single railway track ran down the 12-foot wide center and 22-foot wide concrete highways were cantilevered on each side. This giant would prove to be one of the single most challenging targets for American air power in Vietnam. 104 American pilots were shot down over a 75 square mile area around the Dragon during the war.

In March 1965, the decision to interdict the North Vietnamese rail system south of the 20th parallel led directly to the 3 April 1965 multi-flight strike package against the Thanh Hoa/Ham Rong Bridge. Because of the bridge's structure, the initial attacks proved ineffective.

On 4 April 1965, another multi-flight strike package was scheduled to attack the Thanh Hoa Bridge. Call signs assigned to the strike aircraft flights included "Steel," "Iron," "Copper," "Moon," "Carbon," "Zinc," "Argon," "Graphite," "Esso," "Mobile," "Shell," and "Petrol." In addition to the strike aircraft, "Cadillac" flight was to conduct a Bomb Damage Assessment (BDA) after the strike mission was completed. The search and rescue (SAR) aircraft package included A1 Skyraiders, call sign "Sandy," and HH3 Jolly Green Giant rescue helicopters, call sign "Jolly Green."

All aircraft assembled at the rendezvous point and checked in with the airborne battlefield command and control center (AFCCC) who stacked the flights in holding patterns before handing each flight off to the Forward Air Controller (FAC) responsible for directing the strike mission itself. Pilots involved in the overall mission included Capt. Carlyle "Smitty" Harris, the pilot of the #3 aircraft in a flight of 4 F-105D aircraft (serial #62-4217), call sign "Steel 3." In another flight of Thunderchiefs, Capt. James A. Magnusson, Jr. was the pilot of the lead F-105D (serial #59-1764) in a flight of 4, call sign "Zinc 1." Sandy pilot Capt. Walter F. Draeger, Jr. was assigned to the search and rescue force that was orbiting in a holding pattern over the Gulf of Tonkin in case their services were needed.

At approximately 1100 hours, Capt. Harris oriented himself for his attack pass on the bridge and turned onto a 300-degree heading. After dropping his ordnance, Smitty Harris pulled off target and transmitted that his bombs had impacted on the eastern end of the bridge. At the same time, other aircrews saw Steel 3 on fire with flames emitting for a distance of 20 feet behind it. Capt. Harris' transmission became garbled as Steel flight watched his aircraft head toward the west. All flight members kept Steel 3 in sight until the trailing fire died out. None of the other aircrews saw Capt. Harris eject from his crippled aircraft or see the Thud impact the ground. His last known position was located over a densely populated and heavily defended area covered in rice fields approximately 5 miles southwest of the city of Thanh Hoa, 8 miles southwest of the Ham Rong Bridge and 15 miles southeast of Bai Thuong MiG base.

The ABCCC and SAR force immediately initiated a visual and electronic search for the downed pilot while the FAC continued to direct other flights onto the target. At roughly 1130 hours, and as other flights were directed onto the Ham Rong Bridge, Zinc flight was jumped by a flight of Soviet manufactured North Vietnamese MiG-17's. Zinc Lead tried a breaking maneuver in an attempt to shake off the MiG off his tail. At the same time, Capt. Magnusson, Zinc 2, was struck by air-to-air fire. He immediately radioed that he had been hit, was heading for the Gulf of Tonkin if he could maintain control of his aircraft.

The rest of Zinc flight was busy battling the MiGs in an aerial dogfight. James Magnusson transmitted several more times over the tactical frequency before Steel Lead instructed him to switch his radio to Guard channel, the emergency frequency. In his last transmission, Capt. Magnusson gave his position and stated that his controls were gone and he was going to eject. At that time, Capt. Magnusson's position was 6 miles north of the island of Hon Me, 7 miles east of the town of Ba Long situated on the coastline, 24 miles south-southeast of the city of Thanh Hoa and 26 miles south-southeast of the ham Rong Bridge.

Capt. Walter F. Draeger, Jr. was the pilot of an A1H Skyraider that helped protect downed Americans as well as the rescue helicopters. Capt. Draeger was providing air cover for one of the downed aircrews when his A1H was struck by ground fire from an enemy anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) shore battery. It is not known for whom he was providing that air cover. Other pilots observed the Sandy crash in flames roughly 1 mile east of the coastline, 9 miles south-southeast of the city of Thanh Hoa, 10 miles south-southeast of the Ham Rong Bridge, 12 miles east-southeast of Capt. Harris' position and 16 miles northwest of Capt. Magnusson's location. No parachute was seen or emergency radio beeper heard.

When the search effort for the three men was terminated, Smitty Harris, James Magnusson and Walter Draeger were reported as Missing in Action. On 5 April 1965, the US Air Force received evidence sufficient to confirm that Capt. Draeger died at the time of his incident and his status was immediately changed to Killed in Action/Body Not Recovered. On 15 April 1965, additional information was discovered in the "Vietnam Courier," a communist publication that ran an interview with the MiG pilot responsible for shooting down Capt. Harris' aircraft. Up until then, US intelligence believed the Thud had been struck by ground fire from one of the AAA batteries that protected the bridge.

It was not until much later that US intelligence learned that Capt. Harris had successfully ejected his crippled Thud, had been captured and was imprisoned in Hanoi. On 12 February 1973, Smitty Harris returned to US control during Operation Homecoming. Fellow POWs credited Capt. Harris with introducing the "tap code" into the prison system so that the prisoners could communicate with each other.

The strike mission against the Thanh Hoa/Ham Rong Bridge was filled with firsts in the American air war over North Vietnam. For example, it was the first time a series of major strike packages were combined and launched against that specific target. While MiG's had been spotted on previous missions and were known to be based at the Bai Thuong MiG base, this was the first time they aggressively attacked American aircraft.

In 1992, a National Security Agency (NSA) correlation study of all communist radio intercepts pertaining to missing Americans, which was presented to the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs in a classified format, was finally declassified and made public. According to this document, 1 North Vietnamese radio message was intercepted and correlated to Smitty Harris' incident. The NSA synopsis states: "On 4 April 1965, MiG's striking from cloud cover downed two USAF F-105's. No reflections of aircrew status."

In regard to James Magnusson's loss, 1 intercepted message was correlated to this loss and states: "Note; Shot down by MiG-17's. On 4 April 65, MiG's striking from cloud cover downed two USAF F-105's. No reflections of aircrew status."

If James Magnusson died in the loss of his aircraft, as did Walter Draeger, both men have the right to have their remains returned to their families, friends and country. However, if Capt. Magnusson survived, he most certainly could have been captured and his fate, like that of other Americans who remain unaccounted for in Southeast Asia, could be quite different.

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.

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