Name: Tommy Emerson Gist g016p
Rank/Branch: Major/US Air Force
Unit: 14th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron
Udorn Airfield, Thailand

Date of Birth: 29 October 1939 (Pryor, OK)
Home of Record: Durant, OK
Date of Loss: 18 May 1968
Country of Loss: North Vietnam
Loss Coordinates: 173300N 1063500E (XE720390)
Click coordinates to view maps

Status in 1973: Missing in Action
Category: 2
Aircraft/Vehicle/Ground: RF4C "Phantom II"
Other Personnel In Incident: Terry J. Uyeyama (returned POW)


SYNOPSIS: The McDonnell F4 Phantom used by Air Force, Marine and Navy air wings served a multitude of functions including fighter/bomber, interceptor, photo/electronic surveillance, and reconnaissance. The two man aircraft was extremely fast (Mach 2) and had a long range, 900 - 2300 miles depending on stores and mission type. The F4 was also extremely maneuverable and handled well at low and high altitudes. It was selected for a number of state-of-the-art electronics conversions, which improved radar intercept and computer bombing capabilities enormously. Most pilots considered it one of the "hottest" planes around.

The RF4 version of the Phantom II is a reconnaissance aircraft outfitted for photographic and electronic reconnaissance missions. Other RF4s were equipped with infrared and side-looking radar that helped advance the technology of reconnaissance during the war. They were also used to fly target detection and bomb damage assessment missions throughout Southeast Asia.

On 18 May 1968, Capt. Terry J. Uyeyama, pilot, and then Capt. Tommy E. Gist, navigator, comprised the crew of an RF4C, call sign "Vacuum," which was on a single aircraft day airborne alert photo reconnaissance mission over Quang Binh Province, North Vietnam.

At 1456 hours, Capt. Uyeyama radioed Hillsboro, the airborne command and control aircraft, requesting permission to run the first alternate target in their area of operation. Permission was granted. At 1512 hours, Vacuum flight radioed Hillsboro with the report "success on the target." They were given permission by Hillsboro to contact Cricket, the ground control command center, who then assigned them an in-flight target. Further, Cricket advised Vacuums to contact Waterboy, the Forward Air Controller in the area, for flight heading to the new target. Even though they were given the radio frequency for the FAC, no direct contact was even made between them.

At 1520 hours, the last radio communication was made between Cricket and Vacuums flight. Prior to departing the area at the scheduled time of 1545 hours, Terry Uyeyama and Tommy Gist should have made radio contact again, however, that was not done. At that time electronic and visual searches by the aircraft already on sight was initiated, but none were able to establish voice or beeper contact with either crewman. Likewise, no wreckage or crash site was discovered. Because of the location of loss, no formal search and rescue operation was possible.

The last radio contact with Vacuum flight placed them 16 nautical miles west of Nakhon Phanom, Thailand, 6 nautical miles (approximately 7 kilometers) west-northwest of the major North Vietnamese port city of Dong Hoi, and 3 kilometers north-northwest of the town of Huu Chung. Both Terry Uyeyama and Tommy Gist were listed Missing in Action.

On 13 September 1969 the US government learned that Capt. Uyeyama was in fact a Prisoner of War and his status was changed accordingly. He returned to US control on 14 March 1973 during Operation Homecoming.

In his debriefing, Terry Uyeyama confirmed they were shot down by anti-aircraft artillery fire while flying at an altitude of 500 feet. After being hit, the cockpit filled with smoke and he temporarily went unconscious. Prior to going unconscious, Capt. Uyeyama discovered the intercom between his navigator and himself had been knocked out preventing him from communicating with Tommy Gist. When he halfway regained consciousness, he also regained control of the aircraft and was able to activate the ejection system as the aircraft began to pass over the coastline and out over the Gulf of Tonkin. While he was descending in his parachute, Terry Uyeyama knew the North Vietnamese were shooting at him. He also heard gunfire to the west of his position and thought they were also firing at Tommy Gist.

It took the North Vietnamese about 45 minutes to row out to capture Capt. Uyeyama. Once they pulled him into their small boat and removed his flight helmet, they were terribly surprised to see the face of a Japanese-American staring back at them.

Over the next 10 days, the Vietnamese moved Capt. Uyeyama north toward Hanoi. He sometimes was moved by truck, other times by foot, but was moved only at night. On the fifth day of captivity, a young Vietnamese who was guarding him drew a picture in the sand of an aircraft with two cockpits. He pointed to the front cockpit, then pointed to Terry. He then pointed to the back cockpit, then made a motion with his hand like a gun to his head. He then showed Capt. Uyeyama Tommy Gist's ID card. Terry grabbed the card out of the guard's hand to make sure it really belonged to his navigator. It was Tommy Gist's ID card.

That same ID card was turned over to a Joint Casualty Resolution Center (JCRC) delegation during a meeting in Hanoi 13-16 November 1985 with remarks that the American's "body burned up in the crash of the aircraft." Interestingly, this ID card, which was always carried in his flightsuit breast pocket, was returned in pristine condition indicating it could not possibly have been in a fire. This ID card was one of the first 19 pieces of material evidence provided by the Vietnamese government to our government on missing Americans.

Since the end of the war several reports have surfaced pertaining to the fate of Tommy Gist. It was reported to US intelligence that Capt. Gist in fact ejected his damaged aircraft, landed on the beach near the shoreline injured (believed to be a leg or back injury), that he required, and was given, medical treatment; then later moved to a POW camp located 30 miles southwest of Hanoi near Son Tay.

During two US government trips to Southeast Asia by JCRC personnel, one in the late 1980's and the other in the early 1990's, information was supplied in the form of three "witnesses" which were presented to the Americans by Vietnamese officials. These witnesses recounted an aircraft being shot down with one man being captured and the second man dying of his wounds and being buried on the beach. Each one of these witnesses provided wrong information to support his story to include the type of aircraft, the date of loss, the time of day, the descriptions of both crewmen, etc. The US personnel collecting this information believed each one of the witnesses were coached by the Communist officials in what to say, and that none of them witnessed the incident themselves. However, the US government still officially attributes their convenient accounts to the loss of this aircraft.

Our government's reason for these discrepancies in the witnesses' information lies in the belief that the passage of time dulls memories. One glaring error with that theory lies in one simple fact. At the time Capt. Uyeyama was captured, the Vietnamese were so stunned by this man's nationality that his treatment was more severe and frequent than the treatment dealt out to other prisoners at that point in time. The reality of capturing a "Japanese" caused the North Vietnamese government to believe Japan had entered the war on the side of their enemy. In fact, his capture was of such significance to the Vietnamese that they would never forget the details of his capture. Likewise, all of the witnesses said the American who was captured was over 6 foot tall and not one described Terry Uyeyama as a Japanese-American who in reality only stands 5 feet 7 inches tall. Additionally, not one of the Witnesses gave a correct description of Tommy Gist.

Simply put: if you believe the reports of Tommy Gist's death by these witnesses as being fact, than you also have to believe the faulty description of Terry Uyeyama as a non-Asian American over 6 foot. In other words, these witness statements have nothing to do with the crew of Vacuum flight and undoubtedly no basis in fact for answering questions about any other missing aircrews.

Since the end of the Vietnam War well over 21,000 reports of American prisoners, missing and otherwise unaccounted for have been received by our government. Many of these reports document LIVE America 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 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.