On Oct. 25, 1967, now retired Lt. Col. Richard “Gene” Smith and
his wingmen had orders to bomb the Paul Doumer Bridge in North
Vietnam; the bridge was a mile long and one of the most heavily
defended positions in Southeast Asia.
Smith said that
leading up to the mission, he and his wingmen had a feeling one of
them would not make it back. One of them didn’t.
“To be a
fighter or a bomber pilot you have got to believe that if someone is
going to get shot down, you just have to look around the room and
say, ‘I wonder which one of the son-of-a-guns it’s going to be,
because it won’t be me,’” Smith said. “That was the mentality you
had to have.”
Prior to that day, Smith conducted a bombing
mission in the F-105 Thunderchief. He said pilots would usually fly
two out of every three days, but there were so many missions, he
flew almost every day.
On Oct. 24, his mission had been changed
from a place they had bombed many times prior, to an air base 30
miles from Hanoi that had never been bombed. Smith said there was
much excitement between him and his wingmen.
October 17, 2017 - Retired Lt. Col. Richard “Gene” Smith, former
50th Flying Training Squadron Commander, shows Courtney Cox, editor
of Town and Gown magazine, documents and photos of when he was a
prisoner of war, Oct. 17, 2017, in his home in West Point,
Mississippi. Smith was shot down Oct. 25, 1967, and spent five and a
half years as a POW. (U.S Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Beaux
“Boy, the blood pressure and the excitement went up, we
were finally going to get to hit a base that had not been
hit before,” Smith said. “We had flown right by it coming
down Thud Ridge, we could actually see the MiGs taking off
and there were a couple of [surface-to-air missile] sights
and they would occasionally shoot missiles at us. But now we
finally get to take the son-of-a-guns out.”
said retired Col. Chester Griffin, who at the time was a
captain and is a former 14th Flying Training Wing Commander,
asked the force commander if he could lead the bomb flight.
Smith left his bomb flight so Griffin could lead and became
the force commander’s No. 2 man.
“It was a beautiful
day and there was a lot of excitement,” Smith said. “We
launched our 16 ships, four at a time. The force commander’s
callsign was ‘Scotch’ so I was ‘Scotch 2.’”
about 20 miles away from the base and about three minutes
before they approached the air base, a MiG-21 attempted to
take him and his wingmen out. The bomber formation had an
escort of F-4 Phantom IIs above them for protection, which
then went into attack mode.
The bombers rolled in
and started bombing the air base. Smith saw a few MiGs on
the airfield and told a few wingmen so they could adjust
their aim. He said there was a lot of fuel storage on the
field and when they were flying away there was a massive
Smith said when they got back to base
there was a good feeling. Stars and Stripes was there to
interview them because it was such a big mission. They went
and had fun at the local bar but Smith had to fly the next
day around midday so he took it easy.
On Oct. 25, 1967, Smith went to
his squadron and received news that the base he bombed had
been bombed four more times. He said the base had been
obliterated by his wing, another Air Force wing and two Navy
Smith, who was also the supervisor of flying,
was in the air traffic control tower when he got a call that
his target was changed from the air base they had previously
bombed, to the Paul Doumer Bridge. He told his No. 3 man to
go make the flight plans until he could be relieved from his
“Your jaws tighten up, you get a little
pale in your face and you heart races a little bit because
that is downtown [Hanoi],” Smith said. “That’s the longest
bridge in Southeast Asia [and] one of the most heavily
defended positions in the history of aerial warfare.”
While Smith was waiting for someone to relieve him, he
heard over the radio “Shark 3” had been shot down. The pilot
was a former classmate of his while he in F-105 training at
Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada.
Smith said there was a
sense of uneasiness among him and his wingmen about their
upcoming mission, but they all tried to stay assured they
would be fine.
As Smith and his wingmen were en route
to the bridge, a plane in front of them had hydraulic
problems and had to return to base with an escort which put
the formation short two planes.
“We could see Hanoi
30 miles out from 13,000 feet in the air,” Smith said. “It
was a clear day. We were receiving intel that there were no
MiGs near us, but we could see the SAMs shooting at the
Weasels that flew out in front of us.”
At about two
to three minutes out, flak started to burst around them.
With one minute left until they reached their target, the
force commander called “burner out,” and the formation
rolled in to drop their payload.
He said the flak
was so heavy it was worse than the movies that depict the
B-17 Flying Fortresses getting shot at over Germany.
Prior to the mission start, Smith had told his men to
release their bombs when they hit 9,000 feet, whether their
targeting system was exactly on the target or not.
When Smith hit 9,000 feet he dropped his bombs. When he went
to pull the nose of his plane up and light the burner to
gain back his speed, he was hit with an enemy flak round.
“I felt it get hit, it sounded like someone hitting a
wash tub,” Smith said. “I looked in the cockpit to see if I
had any red lights on the caution panel and I looked to see
if I was still in formation and I was. Next thing I know the
Smith experienced positive and
negative G-forces that caused him to slip in and out of
consciousness. He had a hard time reaching the ejection
handle because the airplane was a “tumbling bucket of bolts
in the sky.” To his recollection, he remembered telling
himself he “was not going to die in this son-of-a-gun.” He
then used his G-suit to help pull the ejection handle.
After he ejected, he reached to deploy his parachute,
assuming he was at about 4,000 feet above ground. The
parachute deployed and Smith checked it, then started taking
He said the first thing he noticed was
that he could see the shin bone on his leg but it did not
appear to be broken. He then checked his radio and tried to
tell the formation he wasn’t going to make it back but he
couldn’t override the emergency beacon. He broke the antenna
off the radio and threw it, did the same with another radio
and then tossed his .38-caliber revolver because he could
see a large number of North Vietnamese soldiers coming to
intercept him on the ground. Smith said he could hear
bullets whizzing by him as he floated down.
When he hit the ground, an enemy soldier with an AK-47 shot
a burst at Smith, hitting him numerous times. They then
stripped him of his G-suit and flight suit with a machete,
got him down to his shorts and a T-shirt and tied his hands
with rope and wire.
“There were people all over me,”
Smith said. “The militia, if we can call them that, was the
only thing stopping them from killing me.”
October 17, 2017 - Retired Lt. Col. Richard “Gene” Smith, former
50th Flying Training Squadron Commander, holds a prisoner of war
bracelet in his home in West Point, Mississippi. The bracelet was
one of hundreds he had returned to him after he was repatriated. The
date Smith was shot down, Oct. 25, 1967, is inscribed on the
bracelet, along with his rank and name. The bracelets help keep the
memory of POWs and those missing in action. (U.S Air Force photo by
Airman 1st Class Beaux Hebert)
Smith was handed to a small Vietnamese girl and he said
he followed her for an unknown length of time. He was then
loaded in a truck and dropped at a hut, then loaded back up
and taken into the depths of Hanoi. Two men guarded him in
the back of the second truck.
“One looked older, like
a master sergeant, and the other was a young recruit,” Smith
said. “The younger one had a pistol and he was playing with
[it]. The gun went off and missed my foot by three inches
and missed the old sergeant’s by less than that. The older
man took the gun and chewed him out.”
Smith said it
was just getting dark when he pulled up to a prison camp,
nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton. That is where the “fun and
games” started, he said sarcastically. He was tortured and
stayed in the interrogation room for almost a week.
“The interesting part of that as I go through it, is that I
broke,” Smith said. “I gave them more than my rank, name,
serial number and date of birth, but it turns out everyone
did the same thing. They never got anything out of me that
was worth any kind of military value.”
He was later
put into the Heart Break section of the prison. They opened
the door and threw him in his cell that was 6 feet long by 4
feet wide with a concrete bunk. The next morning they
brought him some banana peel soup and he said he gobbled it
up. Smith said after his initial week of torturing, he
started to live like a prisoner of war, which is a lot
harder than you’d think.
He moved to another part of
the Hilton about the beginning of December and was put with
three other prisoners. The cell was 8 feet long and 6 feet
wide with two bunks and a small pot to use the bathroom.
They had to be careful not to fill it quick because it could
only be dumped once every 24 hours.
“One of the
hardest things to do was to acknowledge the fact that you
were a POW,” Smith said. That you were not going to wake up
in your bed at Tahkli [Royal Thai Air Force Base,
Smith explained that if anyone wanted to
imagine what it was like, lock yourself in a closest for two
hours with no phone or entertainment and then times it by
five and a half years. He said he had to do math problems
and try to remember his home life in order to stay sane.
In every cell there was a speaker. One day, Smith said
he heard his name come on “Hanoi Hannah,” the nickname for
the radio. His name was out and his family knew he was
On March 14, 1973, after five and a half years in
captivity, Smith was released from his captors and returned
to Clark Air Base, Philippines. He was assigned a sponsor
who took care of him and filled him in on how the world had
changed. He was then reunited with his wife and children at
what is now March Air Reserve Base, California.
came back to a wonderful family, to a wife who had done a
beautiful job of raising my kids,” Smith said. “They all did
good and she just did a wonderful job.”
50 years, Smith said he doesn’t have any resentment for his
captors. He actually felt sorry for them because they had to
suffer the communistic rule.
By U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Beaux Hebert
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