JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-RANDOLPH, Texas — Dec. 5 marks the 50th anniversary of a flying mission that went very wrong during the Vietnam War. On that morning in 1969, two F-4 Phantoms from the 12th Tactical Fighter Wing, assigned to the 558th Tactical Fighter Squadron, launched from Nakhon Phanom Air Base for a bombing mission over Laos. Only one aircraft made it back.
Capt. Ben Danielson piloted the second F-4 – call sign Boxer 22 – with 1st Lt. Woodrow Bergeron Jr. in his back seat. As Danielson lined up his target, enemy anti-aircraft fire tore through the F-4 and immediately set it ablaze.
They had but one choice: eject. Pulling the handles on their ejection seats catapulted them from their burning aircraft and launched what is still today the largest search and rescue mission in Air Force history.
Danielson and Bergeron landed less than 100 yards from each other, separated only by a small river. As they did their best to avoid capture and call in air support using their survival radios, the sky above began swarming with newly-arriving aircraft intent on supporting their downed brothers.
A-1 Skyraiders made countless passes, shooting bullets and rockets at enemy soldiers as they searched for the two Airmen. More F-4s arrived and dropped their bombs, trying to destroy anti-aircraft artillery sites.
Helicopters hovered nearby, making several attempts to pick up the aircrew, but each time getting chased off by heavy gunfire. Airman 1st Class David Davison , a tail gunner on one of the rescue helicopters, was struck by a bullet in the head and killed. The setting sun put an end to rescue efforts that day. Danielson and Bergeron would spend the longest night of their lives in enemy territory.
Sleep never came. Enemy soldiers, undeterred by darkness and now free from attack from above, continued a relentless search for the two airmen. In the early morning hours, Bergeron heard a distant commotion, with excitement and screaming. There was gunfire. The screaming stopped. He knew his pilot had been found and killed. Danielson was never heard from again.
The second day brought more of the same. Hundreds of aircraft flew over Bergeron, coordinating rescue efforts with him on his radio, but each time the enemy chased them off. Dozens of aircraft were damaged. Bergeron would spend a second night in enemy territory, this one alone.
With enemy soldiers closing in on his position, Bergeron knew he had to move. Under the cover of darkness, he crawled from his thicket of bushes down a river bank and into the water. He hid under a bush extending over the water until dawn.
The rising sun brought renewed efforts. Bombs and bullets rained down around Bergeron as pilots tried to destroy enemy gunners. The 16th rescue attempt commenced just before noon. Hovering over the river just 50 feet away from enemy soldiers, an HH-53 hoisted Bergeron aboard and announced over the radio “We’ve got him!”
This story of bravery, survival, and dedication is a great example of the rich heritage found at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, the 12th FTW and the 558th FTS.
In a ceremony open to the public from 1-3 p.m. Dec. 6 at the Parr Club, retired Lt. Col. Woodrow Bergeron will join some of those who flew the Skyraiders, Phantoms and helicopters over his position during those three days he spent on the ground in Laos. With them will be Danielson’s widow and son, who will share their perspective of life with a missing in action husband/father. They will unite to share their stories, but more importantly commemorate the ultimate sacrifice made 50 years ago.