|Name:||Ronald Merl Lebert|
|Rank/Branch:||Captain/US Air Force|
Electronic Warfare Squadron
Takhli Airbase, Thailand
|Date of Birth:||20 May 1942 (Watertown, SD)|
|Home of Record:||Watertown, SD|
|Date of Loss:||03 June 1967|
|Country of Loss:||North Vietnam|
Click coordinates to view maps
|Status in 1973:||Missing in Action|
|Other Personnel In Incident:||Thomas W. Sumpter, Irby D. Terrill, Jr., Hubert C. Walker (released POWs); Pollard H. Mercer; Attillio Pedroli; and James E. Thompson (rescued)|
REMARKS: 730314 RELEASED BY DRV
SYNOPSIS: In order to protect American aircraft from increasingly sophisticated enemy radar controlled anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) guns and surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites, the Air Force deployed EB-66 aircraft to Vietnam. The Douglas EB-66C, Destroyer, was an unarmed, twin-engine jet with a crew of six: pilot, navigator, and four electronic warfare officers (EWOs). The EB-66C was an electronic intelligence (ELINT) platform and the crew's mission was to locate the North Vietnamese SAM and AAA sites by monitoring the electronic emissions of the NVA's "Fan Song" and "Fire Can" radars. The EB-66E was an electronic countermeasures (ECM) platform with a crew of three (pilot, navigator and electronic warfare officer), whose mission was to jam the NVA's radar emissions to degrade the enemy anti-aircraft capabilities and help keep American air losses low.
On 14 January 1968, Major Pollard H. Mercer, pilot; Major Attilio Pedroli, navigator/instructor pilot; Major Irby D. Terrell, Jr., navigator; and electronic warfare officers (EWOs) Major Thomas W. Sumpter, Capt. Hubert C. Walker, then 1st Lt. Ronald M. Lebert, and 1st Lt. James E. Thompson; comprised the crew of an EB-66C aircraft (serial #55-0388), call sign "Preview 01." It departed Takhli Royal Thai Airbase on a single aircraft electronic counter measures (ECM) mission to selectively jam enemy radar for an afternoon strike mission in Route Package VI-A. The orbit point for the Destroyer was at 29,000 feet and approximately 50 nautical miles west-northwest of Thanh Hoa near the North Vietnamese/Lao border. The entire mission was under the control of the 7th Air Force ground control center. Weather conditions included overcast cloud cover with scattered rain showers.
At 1547 hours, Preview 01's F-4 fighter escort aircraft were drawn away from the Destroyer by a MiG-21 that approached their position at medium altitude. As soon as the Phantoms had been drawn off and engaged in aerial combat with the MiG, two others conducted a pop-up maneuver from low altitude and fired with an air-to-air missile at Preview 01. All seven crewmen were able to eject their crippled aircraft. Some of the crew reached the ground safely while others sustained injuries ranging from not serious to severe.
At 1805 hours, the ground control center (GCI) first became aware that Preview 01 was down when Crown, the Airborne Battlefield Command and Control Center (ABCCC) reported hearing emergency beeper signals from the downed crew. Later checks revealed that no GCI or Ethan Allen aircraft had received distress calls. Further, other ECM aircraft had made calls to Preview 01 without receiving a response. A search and rescue (SAR) operation was immediately launched from Lima Site 36. SAR activities on that afternoon were restricted due to adverse weather and approaching darkness. The SAR aircraft did establish voice contact with 4 of the 7 survivors before departing the area.
The rugged jungle covered mountains in which the Destroyer's aircrew was located was approximately 9 miles east of the North Vietnamese/Lao border, 79 miles southwest of Hanoi and 84 miles northwest of Thanh Hoa, Son La Province. They were advised that pick-up would be attempted early on the morning of 15 January.
The following day adverse weather precluded first light pick-up, but a flight of A1 Skyraiders, call sign "Sandy," reestablished voice contact with the survivors. A flight of F-4 Phantoms provided continuous RESCAP by cycling elements between the CAP station and a refueling tanker.
During the afternoon of 15 January, an HH-3 (tail #64-14223), call sign "Jolly Green 20," was part of the onsite rescue force operating at 6,000 feet between cloud layers. The helicopter descended through an opening in the clouds to visually search for signs of survivors, but at an altitude of 3,500 feet, it experienced a loss of power. Unable to restart the engines, the pilot successfully performed a "flare-out" maneuver, which reduced the force of the impact with the ground.
The aircraft received major damage in the rough landing; one crewman sustained a broken arm and another a broken leg. The other three men sustained only cuts and abrasions. The area in which the Jolly Green 20 crew was located was approximately 5 miles east of the North Vietnamese/Lao border and 11 miles northwest of the downed EB-66C crew.
The Jolly Green 20 survivors immediately made contact with other flight members and apprised them of their situation. Additional rescue helicopters, Jolly Green 15 and 72, were launched from Lima Site 36 in an attempt to rescue both aircrews before dark. Unfortunately the two helicopters encountered cloud cover near the crash site of Jolly Green 20 and could not proceed further. To complicate matters, while crossing a ridge, Jolly Green 15 was struck by enemy small arms ground fire. Due to approaching darkness, weather and ground fire, the SAR force was withdrawn from the area.
At 1550 hours on 17 January, Jolly Green 71 successfully rescued the entire crew of Jolly Green 20. As it egressed the area, it was also hit by ground fire causing the loss of the #1 engine, but no other serious damage. The helicopter managed to return to Lima Site 36 with its crew and passengers in tact. From there the survivors were transferred to another helicopter and taken to Udorn Airbase for medical treatment. On the same day Jolly Green 69 successfully rescued Pollard Mercer, Attilio Pedroli and James Thompson. Of the three men, Pollard Mercer's injures were the most serious. He died from those injuries in a military hospital on 20 January 1968.
SAR personnel identified additional beepers from the remaining crewmen of Preview 01 before search efforts were suspended once again due to darkness. Subsequent searches on 18 January failed to locate any beepers or survivors. At the time the formal SAR was terminated, Ronald Lebert, Thomas Sumpter, Irby Terrell and Hubert Walker were immediately listed Missing in Action. Years later when military intelligence learned that each of these four men had in fact been captured, each man's status was changed to Prisoner of War.
During his debriefing, Ronald Lebert recounted that for 17 hours he hung suspended in a tree. Enemy soldiers, who turned out to be members of the local militia, searched for the downed Americans and over the next three days, found and captured four of them. Ronald Lebert was the first captured having been spotted as he dangled high above the ground. Irby Terrell successfully evaded detection until 16 January when his hiding place was discovered. Thomas Sumpter and Hubert Walker were the last to be captured on 17 January.
According to the returnees, they were transported separately to Hanoi by foot, bamboo raft and jeep. As they neared the city, each man's treatment grew worse. The civilians abused the men as they were paraded like trophies through towns and villages along the route. Once in the prison system, they were beaten by guards during military interrogation. There was never enough food and water, and medical treatment was rare.
Ronald Lebert, Thomas Sumpter, Hubert Walker and Irby Terrell were luckier then many captured Americans in that they were lost together and on 14 March 1973 returned to US control together during Operation Homecoming.
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, 2 North Vietnamese radio messages were intercepted and correlated to this incident. The NSA synopsis states: "Note; shot down by AAM from MiG-21. No reflections of crew status. One MiG-21 from Phuc Yen was … medium altitude to draw off MiGCAP, while two Vietnamese-piloted MiG-21's were … at low altitude to the EB-66, conducted a pop-up maneuver and downed the EB-66."
While no members of Preview 01 remained POW/MIAs after Operation Homecoming, other Americans did. 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 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.
Ronald M. Lebert graduated from South Dakota State University in 1965.