|Name:||John Leighton "Robbie" Robertson|
|Rank/Branch:||Colonel/US Air Force|
Ubon Airfield, Thailand
|Date of Birth:||14 October 1930|
|Home of Record:||Seattle, WA|
|Date of Loss:||16 September 1966|
|Country of Loss:||North Vietnam|
Click coordinates to view (4) maps
|Status in 1973:||Missing in Action|
|Aircraft/Vehicle/Ground:||F4C "Phantom II)|
|Other Personnel In Incident:||Hugh E. Buchanan (returned POW)|
REMARKS: IN INTERROG PO60 TOLD SUBJ DIED
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 North Vietnamese railroad system consisted of nine segments, the most important parts of which were north of the 20th parallel. Almost 80% of the major targets were in this area laced together by the rail system. The most important contribution of the system was to move the main fighting weapons from China to redistribution centers at Kep, Hanoi, Haiphong, Nam Dinh and Thanh Hoa. These supplies were further distributed by truck and boats to designated collection points where porters carried the weapons, food and ammunition on their final leg into the war zone.
The most important segment of the rail system was the single-track northeast railroad line that ran some 82 nautical miles from the Chinese border through Kep and into the heart of Hanoi. Ironically, in spite of the sheer number of vital targets all along the length of the northeast railroad, only 10 to 22 miles of its total length, depending upon timeframe was declared accessible for attack according to our own self imposed rules of engagement. The rest of the railroad line lay within the 30-mile buffer zone south of the North Vietnamese/Chinese border and the protected zones surrounding Hanoi and Haiphong. Within that 10 to 22 mile section of railway, the communists constructed anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) batteries every 48 feet. They also positioned a heavy concentration of surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites around the tracts.
On 16 September 1966, Major John L. "Robbie" Robertson, pilot; and then 1st Lt. Hugh E. Buchanan, weapons systems operator; comprised the crew of the #3 aircraft (tail # 63-7643) in a flight of 4, call sign "Moonglow 3." This was Major Robertson's 29th day in Southeast Asia and 1st Lt. Buchanan's 17th mission. The flight departed Ubon Airfield, Thailand at 1500 hours to conduct an armed reconnaissance mission against the Dap Cau Railroad and Highway Bridge located approximately 17 miles southeast of Kep MiG base, between the major cities of Hanoi and Haiphong, North Vietnam. Shortly after the flight departed Ubon Airfield, one of the Phantom's developed fuel problems and was forced to return to base. The rest of the flight continued with their mission.
At 1540 hours, Moonglow flight was nearing their target when they were engaged in aerial combat by a flight of 4 MiG-17s. The Phantom's jettisoned their external armament before engaging the enemy fighters. As the dogfight progressed, Roscoe Epperson, a good friend of Major Robertson's who was flying an air cover for another mission, recognized Robbie Robertson's voice over the radio and listened to the transmissions of the air battle. He heard Major Robertson state, "This is Moonglow 3, I see the MiGs. I am engaging MiGs!" He heard the entire battle from sighting the enemy aircraft through the dogfight. He also heard his friend report, "I am hit, and I'm heading for the water!" In the chaos of battle, no parachutes were seen and no emergency radio beepers were heard. Because of the location being deep within enemy held territory, no search and rescue (SAR) operation was possible. At the time of loss both Robbie Robertson and Hugh Buchanan were listed Missing in Action.
Moonglow flight had been jumped by a flight of 4 MiG-17's that launched from Gia Lam MiG base, which was located on the northeast edge of Hanoi. The #3 MiG was flown by North Vietnamese ace Nguyen Van Bay who was credited with 7 kills by the end of the war. In a 1997 meeting between the North Vietnamese pilot and Ralph Wetterhahn, another friend of Robbie Robertson who was also assigned to this strike mission and flying in another flight of F4C aircraft from the 555 TFS, the following information was established.
The MiGs were scrambled early in the afternoon. Nguyen Van Bay was the first one to spot the American flight far ahead of them. He asked permission to attack the Phantoms. The MiG's flight leader gave permission to give chase, but expressed doubt that they could catch the much faster American aircraft. As the MiG-17s moved toward the Phantoms, Nguyen Van Bay say Moonglow 3 initiate a climbing left turn. That turning maneuver allowed the MiG pilot to cut the diameter of the circle and closed the distance between the opposing aircraft to 100 to 150 meters to achieve an appropriate angle of attack. Nguyen Van Bay aimed, then fired his 37mm and 23mm cannons at the Phantom.
1st Lt. Buchanan reported to Major Robertson, "This guy's pulling right in on us. He's going to shoot any time now." At that moment a salvo of orange golf ball size rounds passed over Moonglow 3's canopies. Robbie Robertson pulled hard on the stick, then eased his turn. Hugh Buchanan saw the MiG close again. He said, "This is going to be it. He's corrected the problem."
Nguyen Van Bay lined up, fired again and saw a wheel come out from beneath the F4's wing and sail past his canopy. For 1st Lt. Buchanan everything went black. According to the WSO, "It could have been from so many G forces pulling the blood away from my eyes, I'm not sure. My helmet was bouncing around - I really don't have a clear memory of ejecting, however, I do sort of have a dream - I can kind of imagine pulling the handle the F4 had between your legs." He went on to say, "I also ejected so I must have done it. I could hear loud booms, like the canopy blowing off. And I felt the wind. The next thing I knew, my parachute was opening. When I got down low, I could see people running around on the ground in a little village. I could see a guy off to the right. He looked like he had a uniform on and a rifle and he was running in my direction." Hugh Buchanan was immediately taken prisoner. He was transported to Hanoi where he was imprisoned in Camp Unity, Ha Lo Prison Camp - the infamous Hanoi Hilton. He was released to US control on 4 March 1973.
Nguyen Van Bay sped away from the burning Phantom, then rolled back to take a look. He watched the aircraft pitch down in flames. He made a note of seeing one parachute as he turned his attention to the remaining US aircraft. Later that day, the Foreign Broadcast Information Service in Okinawa translated a Hanoi Broadcast that announced the downing of two US aircraft in the area where Moonglow 3 was lost. About a month later, radio Hanoi announced the names of three captured Americans, one of whom was Hugh Buchanan. At that time Hugh Buchanan's status was upgraded from Missing in Action to Prisoner of War.
After Operation Homecoming the returning Prisoners of War were debriefed about their loss incidents, captivity, and other men they had information about while in prison. Major Douglas B. "Pete" Peterson, identification number P606, was shot down 3 days before Moonglow 3. He reported that during an interrogation session, the North Vietnamese showed him several military ID cards, one of which was Major Robertson's. Further, Pete Peterson reported he was asked, "Why did Robertson do what he did?" Unfortunately, the guard/interrogator did not elaborate about what Robbie Robertson "did" that day. A guard, nicknamed "The Fox" by the American POWs, implied to Major Peterson that "Major Robertson had died and then left the impression that he had sustained very serious injuries, and that he lived long enough to be brought to Hanoi where he reportedly died."
In June 1990, the Pentagon received a photograph of three men reported to be American POWs holding a sign between them bearing the date 25 May 1990. Robbie Robertson was identified as one of the men. The other two were identified as Albro Lundy and Larry Stevens. Immediately government analysts dubbed the photograph "The Three Amigos." On 12 July 1990, the families of the three men confronted Pentagon officials about taking action to obtain the release of their loved ones.
Three days later the US State Department submitted the picture to the Vietnamese government with a demand for an explanation. This action would not have been taken if our government did not believe it was genuine. On 17 July the same picture appeared for the first time in newspapers and on TV all over the world. The next day unidentified Pentagon officials told reporters "the photo was probably a hoax." Officially at the time no one in the Pentagon would comment on the validity of the picture or the identification of the three American Prisoners of War. However, unofficially they discredited the photograph from the day it was made public.
In April 1991 the US government released a list of Prisoners of War and Missing in Action who were known to be alive in enemy hands and for whom there is no evidence that he or she died in captivity. This list, commonly referred to today as the USG's "Last Known Alive" list, included John L. Robbie Robertson.
If Robbie Robertson died in his loss incident or as a result of wounds received in it, he has a right to have his remains returned to his family, friends and country. However, if he survived his fate, like that of other Americans who remain unaccounted for in Southeast Asia, could be quite different. Either way there is not doubt the Vietnamese 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 so proudly served.