|Rank/Branch:||Colonel/US Air Force|
Tactical Fighter Sq.
8th Tactical Fighter Wing
Ubon Air Base, Thailand
|Date of Birth:||07 July 1926|
|Home of Record:||Ben Lomond, CA|
|Date of Loss:||01 September 1968|
|Country of Loss:||North Vietnam|
|Loss Coordinates:||173700N 1062100E (XE432444)
Click coordinates to view maps
|Status in 1973:||Prisoner of War|
|Other Personnel In Incident:||Hubert C. Nichols, Jr. (missing)|
SYNOPSIS: The single-seat Lockheed F-104 Starfighter was an unusual aircraft created in the mid-1950s to fill the need for a more maneuverable and faster fighter. It was designed primarily to be a low-level attack aircraft capable of flying all-weather electronic-guided missions at supersonic speed. Further, this aircraft was a Mach 2 jet thrust into the combat aircraft world where all others flew at Mach 1 and below. It's ejection system was different from all other aircraft of the day because it shot the pilot downward from under the fuselage rather than up and out the through the cockpit's canopy.
On 1 September 1966, Lt. Col. Norman "Norm" Schmidt was the pilot of an F-104 in a flight conducting a mid-day strike mission over eastern Quang Binh Province, North Vietnam. As he made an attack run on a target, his aircraft was struck by heavy and accurate 37mm anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) from a battery hidden in the jungle below. He was immediately forced to eject from his crippled aircraft. Once on the ground, he established beeper and voice contact with other flight members who notified Crown, the airborne battlefield command and control aircraft (ABCCC) responsible for controlling all air operations during this mission, of the situation. Crown, in turn, radioed for a search and rescue (SAR) operation to be initiated for the Starfighter's pilot.
The location where Lt. Col. Schmidt was downed was heavily forested approximately 1 mile south of Route 107 and 3 miles east of Route 137. It was also 19 miles northwest of Dong Hoi and 22 miles northeast of the Ban Karai Pass, Quang Binh Province, North Vietnam. Route 107 connected the major North Vietnamese port city of Dong Hoi with Route 137, the primary road running through the Ban Karai Pass into Laos.
The region of North Vietnam in which Lt. Col. Schmidt was shot down contained major storage and staging areas for communist troops and supplies preparing to move through the Ban Karai Pass, a primary gateway into the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail and then on to the acknowledged war zone. When North Vietnam began to increase its military strength in South Vietnam, NVA and Viet Cong troops again intruded on neutral Laos for sanctuary, as the Viet Minh had done during the war with the French some years before. This border road was used by the Communists to transport weapons, supplies and troops from North Vietnam into South Vietnam, and was frequently no more than a path cut through the jungle covered mountains. US forces used all assets available to them to stop this flow of men and supplies from moving south into the war zone.
Major Hubert C. Nichols, Jr. was the pilot of an A1E, call sign "Sandy 31," that was the lead aircraft in a flight of two participating in a SAR mission for Lt. Col. Norman "Norm" Schmidt. Capt. Alvie Minnick was the pilot of Sandy 32 and Major Nichols' wingman. The briefed flight path for the SAR aircraft was from Nakhon Phanom Airfield (NKP) to the search area and back to NKP. Weather conditions in the search area included broken cloud cover with a 500-foot ceiling. Sandy flight departed at 1235 hours and reported in with Crown. Crown directed Sandy flight to rendezvous with the two rescue helicopters, call sign "Jolly Green," and orbit in a holding area 10 miles off shore while a section of two Navy A-1H aircraft, call sign "Papoose," worked the search area.
At 1510 hours, the Papoose aircraft were low on fuel and began the return flight to the USS Intrepid. Crown informed Sandy 31 that he was now the on-site commander. Sandy flight initiated a visual search pattern over the forested hills south of Route 107 for Norm Schmidt when NVA gunners opened fire on them. As the flight moved to the south and east, Capt. Minnick saw ground fire erupting from their right line of flight and told Major Nichols to break hard left. As Sandy 32 made his own sharp turn away from the ground fire, he took several hits from the 37mm AAA battery hidden in the trees. In the ensuing chaos of maneuvering to avoid being shot down, Alvie Minnick did not see when Lead's aircraft was struck by the AAA or its crash.
Capt. Minnick's aircraft sustained extensive battle damage forcing him to immediately return to base. He successfully nursed his seriously damaged Skyraider almost to NKP when it became no longer airworthy forcing him to eject. Shortly afterward Capt. Oliver E. O'Maru and his Jolly Green aircrew reached his position and rescued him.
As Capt. Minnick departed the area, the search effort was immediately expanded to include Major Nichols, who was downed at the same coordinates as Lt. Col. Schmidt. A pilot from Papoose flight confirmed the location of Hubert Nichols' crash site accompanied by a large fire. SAR operations continued for 30 minutes. When no parachutes had been seen and no emergency beepers heard, the formal search was terminated at 1530 hours. Another factor involved in the decision to cancel the search for both downed pilots was the extremely heavy and accurate ground fire emanating from the jungle below. At the time the search effort was terminated, both Norm Schmidt and Hubert Nichols were listed Missing in Action.
Between 1 and 6 September 1966, Radio Hanoi made several broadcasts, which were intercepted and transcribed by the Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS), boasting that "several US aircraft had been shot down and the pilots captured on 1 September in Quang Binh Province." Although the reports varied in the number of pilots captured and the number and type of aircraft shot down, the date and location matched Lt. Col. Schmidt and Major Nichols' incidents.
Ultimately Lt. Col. Norm Schmidt was captured by the North Vietnamese and transported to the infamous Hoa Lo Prison Camp, better known by its nickname "The Hanoi Hilton," in downtown Hanoi. The section of the camp where he was held was known as "Vegas" and the cell he shared with other American prisoners was named "Desert Inn." When US intelligence learned that he had in fact been captured, his status was upgraded to Prisoner of War.
The treatment of American POWs in Hanoi during the early years of the war was brutal at best. There was rarely enough food and water to sustain them, and as a result, the Americans suffered from a wide variety of illnesses in addition to their injuries and wounds. According to returned POWs held in Vegas in the summer of 1967, they remembered it as being among the most harrowing stretches they experienced while in captivity matching, and for some exceeding, the misery and brutality of the post-Hanoi March timeframe. One returned POW, Harvey Stockman, later cited Vegas' communication purge as having "few equals in ferocity." When the Vietnamese learned of senior POW Jim Stockdale's policy guidance to all prisoners to adhere to the US Code of Conduct, they were so enraged they increased the level of torture.
Although there was no evidence of outright executions at Vegas in 1967, at least one prisoner, Lt. Col. Schmidt, died from the severe mistreatment. For the offense of looking through a crack in the bath stall wall, Norm Schmidt had been locked in ankle stocks for 10 days in the cell he shared with three other prisoners. When his sentence was completed, his was taken away by guards to what his cellmates thought would be another routine quiz and lecture about his "black activity." The officer conducting the interrogation and lecture was nicknamed Greasy by the Americans because of his slick style. The interrogation room was just down the hall from the prisoner' cells. In addition to the sounds of torture, the POWs heard a loud scuffle and then silence. The other prisoners believed he had angered the unpredictable officer and suffered a fatal beating in return. The last time the other Desert Inn prisoners saw Norm Schmidt was on 31 August 1967, the date considered being when he died in captivity.
Between Operation Homecoming and the fall of Saigon, the North Vietnamese returned the remains of several Prisoners of War who died in captivity and were buried in the Hanoi area. In March 1974, they disinterred Lt. Col. Schmidt's remains from the Ba Huyen Cemetery in Hanoi and returned them to US control on 6 March 1974. This complete set of remains was transported to the Central Identification Laboratory, Hawaii (CIL-HI) for examination and on 22 April 1974, they were positively identified as belonging to Norm Schmidt through dental comparison. Shortly thereafter they were returned to his family for burial.
For the family of Norm Schmidt they have peace of mind in knowing where their loved one is now buried. However, for Hubert Nichols only questions remain. If Hubert Nichols died in the loss of his Skyraider, 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, 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.
Pilots in Vietnam were called upon to live and fight 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.