On 7 April, it was Larry’s 25th birthday, but there was no time for celebration. The North Vietnamese had launched their so-called Easter Invasion of South Vietnam—the largest attack since the Tet Offensive four years earlier—and we were all busy. Larry was a forward air controller with SubUnit 1 of the First Air/Naval Gunfire Liaison Company (ANGLICO), and as North Vietnamese tanks poured across the Demilitarized Zone headed south, he and his pilot, First Lieutenant Bruce C. Walker, were aloft calling in gunfire missions on the advancing enemy.
He was talking on the radio to the USS Buchanan (DDG-14), a destroyer engaged in point-blank gun battles with Soviet-supplied enemy tanks racing down the beaches of the northernmost provinces, when his OV-10A Bronco—call sign “Covey 282”—was hit by a surface-to-air missile and crashed into the jungle 12 miles northwest of Quang Tri City, about 10 miles from the coastline.
We were immensely relieved when radio contact was established with Potts and Walker on the ground and both men reported they were uninjured. But intense gunfire from enemy units drove off initial search-and-rescue efforts for them. The downed Marines reported that heavy concentrations of enemy soldiers were in the area and moving toward them. Soon after, we lost radio contact.
I never saw Larry Potts again. I have seen his name carved in black stone on a wall in Washington, D.C. I’ve thought about him in the years since Vietnam, especially when I play pool.
Larry and I had much in common, but we are different in one significant way: I came home from Vietnam.
Captain Larry Potts, USMC (promoted posthumously), is among the 1,948 American service personnel missing in action in Vietnam.
Fighter Squadron 126 (VF-126) was established as Attack Squadron 126 (VA-126) on 6 April 1956 at Naval Air Station Miramar, California. The squadron was assigned the F7U-3 Cutlass, but problems with the aircraft delayed deployment and the squadron was selected to demonstrate the replacement air group (RAG) concept for Pacific Fleet attack squadrons.
In 1957, VA-126 became the Pacific Fleet RAG for the F9F-8B Cougar and FJ-4 Fury aircraft and in April 1958 absorbed VA-54 and VA-125, becoming the RAG for the A4D-1 Skyhawk and AD Skyraider as well. In 1959, when the RAG concept was fully instituted, VA-126 transferred A4D and AD training to VA-125 and VA-122, respectively, leaving FJ-4 training as its only responsibility. As the FJ-4 was phased out, the squadron assumed the all-weather instrument-training role from VF-121 and flew the F9F-8T (TF-9J) Cougar. When Naval Air Station Lemoore, California, opened in 1961, VA-126 established an instrument training detachment there, which eventually was established separately as VA-127 on 15 June 1962.
The role of the VA-126 “Seahawks” began to evolve into adversary training in October 1964, when the squadron began to fly as training adversaries against fleet fighter squadrons. On 15 October 1965, the squadron was redesignated VF-126, and continued to provide adversary training to F-4 and F-8 squadrons deploying to the Vietnam War zone.
In April 1967, VF-126 began replacing its TF-9Js with TA-4F Skyhawks, and eventually acquired A-4E/F and TA-4J Skyhawks as well. In 1978, the squadron also took on the role of training fighter pilots in spin recovery techniques and acquired T-2C Buckeye trainers for this role, which continued until 1993.
When the adversary role became the squadron’s primary mission, VF-126 became known as the “Bandits.” The F-5E Tiger II and T-38A Talon were added to provide supersonic adversary threat training. In 1984, the Bandits introduced the renowned Fleet Fighter Aircrew Readiness Program to provide tactical training to fighter squadrons during work-up cycles. F-16N Falcon fighters replaced the F-5Es and T-38As in 1986.
By 1992, VF-126 was operating a fleet of A-4F Super Fox, A-4M, and TA-4F/J Skyhawks, as well as F-16Ns and T-2Cs. In the post-Cold War drawdown, the adversary role was transferred to reserve forces and VF-126 was disestablished on 1 April 1994.