Henry Elmer MacCann
Missing In Action
|SYNOPSIS: The F111 was first used in Southeast Asia in March 1968 during Operation
Combat Lancer and flew nearly 3,000 missions during the war despite frequent periods of
grounding. From 1968 to 1973, the F111 was grounded several months because of excess
losses of aircraft. By 1969, there had been 15 F111's downed by malfunction or enemy
fire. The major malfunctions involved engine problems and problems with the terrain
following radar (TFR) which reads the terrain ahead and flies over any obstructions.
Eight of the F111's downed during the war were flown by crews that were captured or
declared missing. The first was one of two F111's downed during Operation Combat
Lancer, during which the F111 crews conducted night and all-weather attacks against
targets in North Vietnam. On March 28, the F111A flown by Maj. Henry E. MacCann
and Capt. Dennis L. Graham was downed near the airfield at Phu Xa, about 5 miles
northwest of the city of Dong Hoi in Quang Binh Province, North Vietnam. Both
MacCann and Graham were declared Missing in Action. The crew of the second F111
downed during March 1968 was recovered.
On April 22, 1968 at about 7:30 p.m., Navy LCdr. David L. Cooley and Air Force LtCol.
Edwin D. Palmgren departed the 428th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Ubon Air Base,
Thailand to fly an attack mission against the Mi Le Highway Ferry over Dai Giang
along Route 101. They were to pass over very heavily defended areas of Laos at rather
low altitude. Although searches continued for four days, no wreckage was ever found.
The loss coordinates are located near Quang Bien, in Laos, although the two men are
listed as Missing in Action in North Vietnam.
As a result of the loss of the Cooley/Palmgren F111A, the Air Force suspended use of
the aircraft for a limited period to investigate the cause of the losses and make any
necessary modifications. After the aircraft returned to the air, the crashes resumed.
When the 15th F111 went down in late 1969 because of mechanical failure, all F111's
were grounded and the plane did not return to Vietnam service for several months.
In September 1972 F111A's were returned to Southeast Asia. On September 29, 1972,
the F111A flown by Maj. William C. Coltman and commanded by 1Lt. Robert A. Brett, Jr.
went down in North Vietnam on the Red River about 10 miles southwest of the city of Yen
Bai. Inexplicably, the National League of Families published a list in 1974 that indicated
that Robert A. Brett had survived the downing of his aircraft, and that the loss location
was in Laos, not North Vietnam. Both men remain Missing in Action.
Between October 17, 1972 and December 18, 1972, four more F111A's were downed and
their teams were reported missing in action. The last missing F111A team to be shot
down was Capt. Robert D. Sponeyberger and 1Lt. William W. Wilson. Sponeyberger and
Wilson were flying a typical F111tactical mission when they were hit - flying at supersonic
speed only a few hundred feet altitude. They were declared Missing in Action.
In 1973, however, Sponeyberger and Wilson were released by the North Vietnamese,
who had held them prisoner since the day their aircraft was shot down. Their story
revealed another possibility as to why so many F111's had been lost.
Air Force officials had suspected mechanical problems, but really had no idea why the
planes were lost because they fly singly and out of radio contact. Capt. Sponeyberger
and 1Lt. Wilson had ruled out mechanical problems. "It seems ogical that we were hit
by small arms," Wilson said, "By what you would classify as a 'Golden BB' - just a lucky
shot." Sponeyberger added that small arms at low level were the most feared weapons
by F111 pilots. The SAM-25 used in North Vietnam was ineffective at the low altitudes
flown by the F111, and anti-aircraft cannot sweep the sky fast enough to keep up with
That a 91,000 pound aircraft flying at supersonic speeds could be knocked out of the air
by an ordinary bullet from a hand-held rifle or machine gun is a David and Goliath-type
story the Vietnamese must love to tell and retell.
As reports continue to be received by the U.S.Government build a strong case for belief
that hundreds of these missing Americans are still alive and in captivity, one must wonder
if their retention provides another David and Goliath story for Vietnamese propaganda.
The F111 missions were hazardous and the pilots who flew them brave and skilled.
Fourteen Americans remain missing from F111 aircrafts downed in Southeast Asia. If any
of them are among those said to be still missing, what must they be thinking of us?