Lest We Forget: Randall "Duke" Cunningham; Patrol Squadron 49

By Lieutenant Commander Thomas J. Cutler, USN (Ret.), and Lieutenant Commander Rick Burgess, USN (Ret.)

A few months later, Operation Linebacker had begun, and Cunningham and Driscoll were flying escort for a group of A-6 Intruders, when three MiG-17s appeared. In a brief but harrowing engagement, Cunningham and Driscoll downed one of the enemy aircraft, which was on the tail of his wingman, while the other two were firing on them.

Two days later, Cunningham's section was on a flak-suppression mission in the Hanoi/Haiphong corridor when 22 enemy fighters attacked them. In an intense engagement, Cunningham shot down one MiG-17 with a Sidewinder, then saved the squadron's executive officer by shooting down another.

But the toughest fight had just begun. Cunningham found himself in a close-run battle with another aircraft, reputedly piloted by a North Vietnamese ace. First passing the MiG in a head-on encounter, Cunningham attempted a series of rolling scissor maneuvers, dodging cannon fire from his skilled adversary. With afterburners flaming brightly, Cunningham then tried to outclimb the MiG as the two of them streaked upward to nearly 20,000 feet. But the determined Communist pilot stayed with him. Cunningham suddenly pulled hard toward the MiG, yanked his throttles to idle, and extended his speed brakes. His enemy shot past him, and as they "pitched over the top," Cunningham fired a Sidewinder. The missile slammed into the aircraft, and both man and machine plummeted earthward, slamming into the North Vietnamese countryside.

But having survived the arduous air battle, Cunningham's luck ran out when a surface-to-air missile struck his F-4, causing Cunningham and Driscoll to eject into the Gulf of Tonkin. They were rescued, but only after rescue forces fought a running battle with two enemy PT boats.

Duke Cunningham and Irish Driscoll had become the first aces of the Vietnam War and the first to achieve ace status exclusively with air-to-air missiles. Cunningham retired from the Navy in 1987, and today is a congressman.

—Lieutenant Commander Thomas J. Cutler, U.S. Navy (Retired)


Patrol Squadron 49 (VP-49) began five decades of service on 1 February 1944 when it was established as VP-19 at Naval Air Station Alameda, California. The squadron's PBM-3D Mariner seaplanes were flying combat missions against Japanese forces just a month later.

VP-19 was redesignated Patrol Bombing Squadron 19 (VPB-19) on 1 October 1944. The squadron provided support at the invasion of Iwo Jima in February 1944 and at other naval activities throughout World War II. After the war, VPB-19 provided support to Operation Crossroads, the atomic bomb tests at Bikini Atoll.

In 1946, VPB-19 moved to Naval Air Station Norfolk, Virginia, upgraded to the PBM-5, and was redesignated VP-MS-9. On 1 September 1948, the squadron was again redesignated, to VP-49. It later operated the P5M-1 Marlin and subsequently the P5M-2S (SP-5B). In July 1959, the squadron moved to Bermuda, from where it flew Cold War patrols. VP-49 flew extensively supporting the quarantine of Cuba during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

VP-49 sent its last seaplane detachment to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in May 1963 while the squadron moved to Patuxent River, Maryland, for transition to the P-3A Orion. VP-49 deployed many times to sites in the Atlantic and Mediterranean over the next three decades in support of fleet operations. In 1966, the squadron also deployed to Adak, Alaska, to backfill for another squadron deployed to Vietnam, and in 1968 itself deployed to the war zone to support the interdiction of supplies from North Vietnam.

In 1970, VP-49 upgraded to the P-3C and became the first squadron to deploy with that aircraft, taking it to the submarine-rich waters near Keflavik, Iceland. The squadron moved to Naval Air Station Jacksonville, Florida, in January 1972, and continued regular deployments tracking Soviet submarines and supporting other operations, including the capture of the Achille Lauro hijackers.

VP-49 upgraded to the Update III version of the P-3C in 1989 and continued its far-flung operations, including support of United Nations sanctions against Haiti. The squadron was disestablished at Jacksonville on 1 March 1994 as part of the post-Cold War drawdown.

—Lieutenant Commander Rick Burgess, U.S. Navy (Retired)

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