|Name:||Walter H. Sigafoos III|
|Rank/Branch:||Captain/US Air Force|
DaNang Airbase, South Vietnam
|Date of Birth:||29 August 1946|
|Home of Record:||Richboro, PA|
|Date of Loss:||25 April 1971|
|Country of Loss:||Laos|
Click coordinates to view maps
|Status in 1973:||Missing in Action|
|Aircraft/Vehicle/Ground:||F4D “Phantom II”|
|Other Personnel In Incident:||Jeffrey C. Lemon (missing)|
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.
On 25 April 1971, Capt. Jeffrey C. "Jeff" Lemon, pilot; and then 1st Lt. Walter H. Sigafoos, Weapons Systems Officer; comprised the crew of an F4D (serial #66-7616), call sign "Gunfighter 14," that departed DaNang Airbase as the lead aircraft in a flight of two. Their mission was a night escort/strike mission to interdict enemy traffic moving along the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail. Weather conditions at the time of loss were clear with no moon and approximately 2 miles visibility.
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.
Gunfighter flight proceeded to rendezvous with an AC119 gunship over their area of operation. After 30 minutes of escort duty, Gunfighter 14 departed the area to refuel from an airborne tanker. The flight returned to the target area approximately an hour later to relieve their wingman, Gunfighter 16, that was performing the same escort function for the gunship. Shortly thereafter the AC119 located an enemy truck traveling along Highway 165, a primary road running generally north/south through the rugged jungle covered mountains of eastern Laos located approximately 5 miles west of Tang Pong. Approximately 18 miles south of the target location, Highway 165 turns to the east and enters South Vietnam south of Kham Duc.
The gunship directed Capt. Lemon to strike the truck. In preparation for the airstrike, the gunship dropped a red flare to identify the target. The pilot briefed Gunfighter 14 to make either a north to south or south to north attack run on the truck. Capt. Lemon said he could not see the flare from the south and would proceed to the north. His Gunfighter 16 was orbiting the area at an altitude of 2,500 feet and his wingman noted he had difficulty in picking up the flare from any direction as he circled the area. The truck was traveling south through the heavily forested jungle with nearby hills reaching approximately 2,500 feet above the jungle canopy.
Gunfighter 14 contacted the gunship when it was north of the target stating that he and 1st Lt. Sigafoos had both the flare and the gunship in sight. Jeff Lemon initiated his first pass on the truck expending his MK-82 bombs. He also informed the other aircraft assigned to this mission that he intended to make another pass. On their second pass, the aircraft was seen by the gunship crew and their wingman to impact the ground and burn in the target area.
The location of loss was approximately 1½ miles north of Highway 165, 21 miles northeast of the city of Ban Phon, the same distance southwest of the Lao/South Vietnamese border and 54 miles north-northeast of Attopeu, Saravane Province, Laos. It was also roughly 57 miles west-northwest of Kham Duc, South Vietnam.
Upon seeing the fireball, Gunfighter 16 attempted to make radio contact with either Jeff Lemon or Walter Sigafoos on the assigned radio frequency as well as on guard channel with no response. Gunfighter 16 then notified King, the airborne search and rescue (SAR) aircraft, giving him the information that he believed his Lead aircraft to be down. SAR procedures were initiated immediately and all aircraft assigned to King flight arrive in the loss area shortly thereafter. Gunfighter 16 continued to orbit the crash site searching for any sign from the downed aircrew until he reached bingo fuel, the point at which he needed to depart the area in order to have enough fuel to safely return to base. During this time Gunfighter 16 was never able to make radio contact with Capt. Lemon or 1st Lt. Sigafoos before departing the area.
SAR efforts continued on 25 and 26 April, but were hampered by thunderstorms. Search operations were terminated on 27 April, and at that time both Jeff Lemon and Walter Sigafoos were listed 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, 3 North Vietnamese radio messages were intercepted and correlated to this incident, 1 in April and 2 in May 1971. The NSA synopsis states: "(The) 16th AAA (anti-aircraft artillery) Battalion; (deleted word) at 1600G, two 37mm guns of Company 3 at the KM-72, struck an F4 flying, expending 10 rounds. Results: the F4 was hit and burst into flames. The (deleted word) pilot was killed, the pilot that parachuted was captured. (The) 16th AAA Battalion; (deleted word) the company shot the pilot while he was parachuting. The pilot is dead."
Capt. Lemon and 1st Lt. Sigafoos were among nearly 600 Americans who disappeared in Laos. Many of these men were known to be alive on the ground. The Lao admitted holding "tens of tens" of American Prisoners of War, but these men were never negotiated for either by direct negotiation between our countries or the Paris Peace Accords since Laos was not a party to that agreement.
If Jeffrey Lemon and Walter Sigafoos died in their loss incident, they have a right to have their remains returned to their families, friends and country. However, if either one or both men survived their loss, they most certainly would have been captured; and their fate, like that of other Americans who remain unaccounted for in Southeast Asia, could be quite different.
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.
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.