LESTER, RODERICK BARNUM “ROG”

Name:  Roderick Barnum “Rog” Lester
Rank/Branch: Lieutenant Commander/US Navy
Unit:  Attack Squadron 52
Carrier Attack Wing 11
USS Kitty Hawk (CVA-63)
Date of Birth: 19 June 1946 (Morton, WA)
Home of Record: Morton, WA
Date of Loss: 20 August 1972
Country of Loss:  North Vietnam
Loss Coordinates:  210000N 1054500E (YJ209390)
Click coordinates to view maps

Status in 1973: Missing In Action
Category: 2
Aircraft/Vehicle/Ground: A6A “Intruder”

Other Personnel in Incident: Harry S. Mossman (remains recovered)

REMARKS:
 

SYNOPSIS:With the addition of the Grumman A6A Intruder to its inventory, the 1st Marine Air Wing (MAW) had the finest two-man, all-weather, low-altitude attack/bombing aircraft in the world. It displayed great versatility and lived up to the expectations of those who pushed for its development after the Korean War. At the time it was the only operational aircraft that had a self-contained all-weather bombing capacity including a moving target indicator mode. In this role it usually carried a bomb load of 14,000 pounds and was used rather extensively in the monsoon season not only in South Vietnam, but also in Laos and over the heavily defended areas of North Vietnam. The Intruder was credited with successfully completing some of the most difficult single-plane strikes in the war, and its’ aircrews were among the most talented and most courageous to serve the United States.

It was well known by later 1972 that the war was drawing to a close, and that the North Vietnamese were offering huge bonuses to anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) gunners who could shoot down American aircraft and capture the aircrews alive. At this stage in the war our enemy knew the more men they could capture, the better their chances were at the negotiating table to secure peace on their terms. Everyone knew the prisoners were worth much more alive than dead to both sides.

On 20 August 1972, then Lt. Roderick B. “Rog” Lester, pilot; and Lt. Harry S. Mossman, bombardier/navigator; comprised the crew of an A6A (aircraft #157018; tail #NH-502), call sign “Viceroy 502,” in a flight of 4 that launched from the deck of the USS Kitty Hawk to conduct a low-level night armed reconnaissance/strike mission against a transshipment point along Route 183 at Da Mon Toi, a small town in extreme northeast North Vietnam located near the major coastal city of Cam Pha, Quang Ninh Province. Further, this mission was the 144th combat sortie flown by Viceroy 502’s aircrew. Weather conditions were described as poor with thunderstorms and a cloud ceiling at 1000 feet.

After initial check-in with their ship and the Airborne Battlefield Command and Control Center (ABCCC) responsible for all air operations in this region, Lt JG Lester was given current mission and weather data before proceeding with the mission along a pre-briefed flight path. That flight path took the Intruders north as they skirted the enemy coastline just out of the reach of the communist’s shore defenses. Once over land, the flight proceeded on track an additional 5 miles to Route 183 and their area of operation.

Because of the Cam Pha mines, this region was extremely important to the North Vietnamese war effort. Route 183 was a major inland highway running east-west that was bordered by mountains to the north and a very long narrow forested valley to the south. Between the valley and the coastline to the south, a distance ranging from 6 to 9 miles, lay the Cam Phu mines. The entire region was heavily populated with villages of all sizes. It was also equally heavily defended.

At approximately 0145 hours, other flight members heard a transmission from Lt. JG Lester and Lt. Mossman’s aircraft stating “Let’s get the hell of out here!” which other pilots believed meant that Viceroy 502 was getting out of the area due to the heavy ground fire and not ejecting from their aircraft.

About the same time one of the aircrews saw a flash of light below the cloud level that corresponded with the track of Viceroy 502, but they could not tell if it was from the Intruder or from the many thunderstorms. Further, the other aircrews reported extremely accurate and heavy anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) fire emanating from in and around the target area.

The location of loss was near the village of Ky Thuong on the extremely steep northwest side of Nui Am Vap Mountain, now known as Khe Can Mountain. It was also approximately 7 miles north of Route 183, 12 miles north of the major coastal city of Hon Gay, 13 miles northwest of the town of Cam Pha, 33 miles northeast of Haiphong and 82 miles east of Hanoi, Hoanh Bo District, Quang Ninh Province, North Vietnam.

After providing the ABCCC with a status report, the remaining members of Viceroy flight began a visual and electronic search for Lt. Lester and Lt. Mossman; however, the visual effort was severely hampered by darkness and the weather. Likewise during the electronic search no emergency beeper signals were heard emanating from the rugged jungle below. At the time the search operation was terminated, Rog Lester and Harry Mossman were declared Missing in Action.

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: Lost to causes unknown. An unidentified air defense unit possibly in Quang Ninh Province …. Aircraft shot down and attempts to capture the pilots. Three companies were mobilized for the search which was to commence at 2100z on 20 August in the mountains.”

Between May 1994 and September 1996, joint US and Vietnamese teams under the auspices of the Joint Task Force for Full Accounting (JTFFA) made several trips to Quang Ninh Province to investigate the loss of Viceroy 502. They interviewed several witnesses who provided a variety of information ranging from crash site location to finding and burying partial remains of the aircrew. According to one of the witness statements, one of the pilots was wrapped in a parachute and other in a raincoat before burial, and both were buried at a depth of at least 80 centimeters.

In January 1997 and again in November/December 1997, JTFFA teams excavated reported burial sites, but found no human remains at either location.

Another team returned to the location of loss in October 1999 to conduct preliminary evaluation of the site and to arrange for necessary equipment to be brought in. Team members noted the crash site was located at nearly 4000 feet on an extremely steep and heavily forested slope that had not been previously excavated.

Between 23 October and 30 November 2003, the last JTFFA team returned to Quang Ninh Province to complete the excavation process searching for Rog Lester and Harry Mossman. In addition to small pieces of aircraft wreckage and life support equipment, they recovered an eyeglass lens that contained no prescription, a dime, part of a beaded chain, a sock, Harry Mossman’s Geneva Convention Card and a dogtag for Rog Lester. They also found one section of leg bone. When the site was closed, the bone fragment was first reviewed by a joint forensic team in Hanoi before being transported to the Central Identification Laboratory, Hawaii (CIL-HI) for further examination.

Through the use of mitochondrial DNA (mt-DNA), testing, the bone fragment was conclusively identified as belonging to Lt. Mossman. Shortly thereafter it was returned to his family for burial with full military honors.

While the fate of Harry Mossman is finally resolved and his family has the peace of mind of knowing where their loved one lies, many questions remain regarding what actually happened to Rog Lester. If he died in the loss of his Intruder with Lt. Mossman, there is no doubt that his remains are no longer recoverable due to the catastrophic nature of the loss, passage of time and ground conditions. However, if he was able to eject his crippled aircraft before impact, he most certainly would have been captured by enemy forces and his fate, like that of other Americans, could be quite different. Above all else, Rog Lester has the right not to be forgotten by the nation for which he gave his life.

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 American Prisoners of War remaining captive throughout Southeast Asia TODAY.

Pilots and aircrews in Vietnam 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.

A memorial funeral service was held for Rog Lester on 20 August 2005 at Morton Cemetery, Morton, WA.