The fast descent into warm, humid air at low altitude caused the air conditioner to fog up the cockpit of U.S. Navy Lieutenant Curtis DosО’s F-4J Phantom II, blinding the pilot at 50 feet.1 DosО reached down and dumped the cabin pressurization, which rapidly cleared the cockpit air. At the same time, his Sidewinder missiles were looking at the heat signature of a MiG-21 fighter, their growl roaring in his headset.2 When the air cleared, the image was a fighter pilot’s dream. DosО was over an enemy airfield, flying supersonic behind a couple of MiGs in afterburner. To the sides, all was a blur, but in front, the MiGs filled the windscreen.
Curtis DosО came from a fighter pilot family. During World War II, his father, Lieutenant Commander Robert G. DosО, commanded Fighting Squadron 12, flying off the USS Saratoga (CV-3). While piloting an F-6F Hellcat, he shot down a Japanese Zero.3
Curtis joined the U.S. Naval Reserve while in high school, believing it would enhance his chances of being admitted to the U.S. Naval Academy. He attended boot camp during Christmas break of his junior year. He indeed did get into the Academy, graduating in the class of 1967. Originally, Dosé wanted to go into nuclear submarines, but a ride in a T-2 Buckeye jet trainer the summer between his Academy second and third years changed that. He was absolutely hooked on flying jets. After graduation, he immediately headed for Pensacola.
Dosé rapidly moved through Navy flight training, earned his wings in 13 months, and was selected for jets. Disappointingly, he was “plowed back,” being retained as a flight instructor, as often happened with students who had performed exceptionally well. For the next year, he schooled students in the advanced phases of flight training. The F-9 Cougar was his classroom until a new jet, the TA-4F, became available to the training command.
In 1970, Dosé got his heart’s desire—transition to the Navy’s newest and hottest fighter, the F-4 Phantom II. He was fast-tracked through the transition syllabus, completing it in four months, and then was ordered to the western Pacific as a replacement pilot. He met up with his new unit, Fighter Squadron (VF) 92, the “Silver Kings,” in early September 1970. VF-92 was based on board the USS America (CV-66) on Yankee Station, operating over North Vietnam, South Vietnam, and Laos, and the new replacement flew his first combat mission the day he arrived.
A Lot to Learn
Dosé was on the wing of a Phantom flown by the squadron’s commanding officer (CO), Commander Jack Tallman, escorting an RA-5C Vigilante on a photo mission targeting an enemy airfield south of Hanoi. Approaching at 1,000 feet and 600 knots, Dosé saw dark clouds forming at their altitude over the airfield. To his inexperienced eyes, they appeared to be a strange weather phenomenon, but it was flak. A surface-to-air missile (SAM) was launched at them, but Dosé missed the flashing lights and audio tone from his aircraft’s radar homing and warning system. The CO’s call to “Break hard left!” cleared him of the missile he never saw.
After the mission, Dosé realized he had a lot to learn. Many more combat missions followed, with him flying mostly barrier combat air patrols and bombing missions. He became a confident and aggressive fighter pilot, “Seeing all, doing all, killing all.”
Following VF-92’s return to San Diego in December, Dosé attended the two-year-old Navy Fighter Weapons School—TOPGUN. The school was a major factor in improving naval aviators’ kill ratio. Previously, air-to-air combat, or dogfighting, had not been a significant part of fighter crews’ instruction in flight school, in replacement air groups, or even during predeployment training. The Phantom had been designed as a long-range interceptor. It carried AIM-7 Sparrow radar-guided missiles, which could knock down enemy aircraft before they were even seen. Dogfighting would not be necessary.
But during the Vietnam War, U.S. rules of engagement dictated that enemy aircraft be visually identified before they could be attacked. Therefore, a long-range missile was practically useless. Once friendly fighters were close enough to identify a MiG, they were too close to use the AIM-7 and instead were at a range where the enemy aircraft liked to battle F-4s in tight, slow-speed, turning fights that favored the MiGs’ greater maneuverability. Phantom crews needed to know how to tangle with MiGs and get in position to kill them with short-range heat-seeking AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles. And that is what was taught at TOPGUN, where Dosé was an honor graduate.
Flying an Alpha Strike
In October 1971, VF-92 deployed on board the USS Constellation (CV-64) to Yankee Station in time for Operation Linebacker. Linebacker was President Richard Nixon’s promise to pound North Vietnam with air attacks in response to that country’s Easter Offensive, a massive invasion of South Vietnam that began on 30 April 1972. The North Vietnamese were ready to defend their skies. As a result, the “Connie’s” 1971–72 cruise was during the most intensive air combat period of the war.
On 10 May 1972, the first day of Linebacker, Dosé’s F-4J roared off the Constellation’s deck, and the lieutenant joined up with his section leader, Lieutenant Austin “Hawk” Hawkins. Hawkins then turned the two Phantoms toward Haiphong, North Vietnam, to provide fighter protection for the first of three scheduled U.S. Navy Alpha strikes—heavy, well-coordinated missions that could include up to a deckload of aircraft. This first strike included 31 aircraft: 16 “bomb droppers”—A-6s and A-7s; 9 F-4s flying MiG combat air patrol (MiGCAP); 4 F-4s to hit enemy antiaircraft sites; and 2 A-7s armed with Shrike antiradiation missiles to suppress SAMs.
Hawkins’ section of Phantoms took position as a MiGCAP, orbiting at 12,000 feet and about 10 miles north of the Alpha strike’s target, a petroleum storage area south of Haiphong. The backseaters in the two Phantoms—Radar Intercept Officers (RIOs) Lieutenant Commander Jim McDevitt in Dosé’s F-4 and Lieutenant (junior grade) Jay Tinker in Hawkins’ aircraft—swept the area with their radars, looking for enemy fighters. No MiGs were detected. Leaving fire and smoke behind them, the Alpha strike’s bombers cleared the target and turned back toward the Connie.
Just then, Hawkins’ flight heard a call on the emergency guard frequency from Red Crown, the Navy’s radar alert and air direction facility on board a cruiser off the coast: “Bandits, bandits, blue bandits, Bullseye 040 at 30.”4 Dosé was not a bit surprised when Hawk responded, “Kites [the call sign for VF-92] have the vector.”
A Target over Kep
The pair had discussed, and Hawkins was adamant, that if they got the opportunity, they would go after MiGs, specifically at Kep, a prominent enemy fighter base.5 In fact, Bullseye 040 at 30 was Kep Air Base. The call from Red Crown was like an engraved invitation.
Hawkins and Dosé dumped their Phantoms’ noses, descending from 12,000 to about 5,000 feet, and accelerated to 600 knots. From their location, they could be over Kep in about five minutes. Both F-4Js were in an air-to-air configuration, carrying four Sidewinder and four Sparrow missiles. Looking for the bandits with their radars, they got no contacts. The Phantoms arrived over Kep and at about 5,000 feet cruised along the single, nearly 6,000-foot runway.6 Dosé, on the left side, looked down and saw two silver MiG-21s holding short of the airstrip. MiG-17s were in revetments alongside the runway. Dosé plotted how they might be able to swoop around and shoot a Sidewinder at the MiG-21s on the ground—which would have been against the rules of engagement—or be in a position to take on the enemy fighters if they were to take off.7
Dosé’s RIO, McDevitt, called out: “Two MiGs on the roll!” and the pilot looked back to see two more MiG-21s, which had been on the runway, now taking off. TOPGUN taught that the pilot of whichever aircraft in a section that had the best position should take the lead, regardless of his relative rank. Without hesitation, Dosé did so, calling, “Kite-2’s got the lead, in place, port, descend, burner now.” Immediately, they pulled hard over to the left in a 6-to-7-G, oblique, 45-degree downward turn. Dosé wanted to get the section in position to shoot the MiGs immediately after they lifted off. The Phantoms accelerated to supersonic in the dive and leveled off at about 50 feet. Flying ahead of their sound, they silently slid down the runway and behind the MiGs, which were just breaking ground and in burner.
The two enemy pilots, now alerted, dropped their fuel tanks, still full, which tumbled down and exploded like napalm on the grass. Their aircraft immediately broke hard left. The MiG-21s were beautiful, bright silver, clean, and sleek, with Soviet red stars, not the stars and bars of North Vietnam. Dosé worried about that for a split second but decided they were within the rules of engagement. They were over North Vietnam and in flight—he was going after them.
Dosé called Hawk, “I got the MiG on the right; you take the one on the left.” The MiGs, circling hard left, were still very low, about 50 feet. Dosé popped over the taller trees to keep behind them. He drove for the MiG’s deep-six position, low and behind the aircraft, in a lag pursuit turn. This was achieved pretty quickly, and he pulled in and fired a Sidewinder, calling out, “Fox-2 on the right.”
After what seemed to Dosé an “hour and a half” delay, a Sidewinder on the left wing finally fired. It came off the rail and immediately made a gargantuan turn to the inside of the circle. Dosé thought it had lost a fin and gone stupid. He had backed off when he fired the missile but now started pulling back in to shoot another. As he did so, in came the first Sidewinder headed for the MiG. It exploded close behind the jet, not close enough, though. The enemy plane was still flying and turning hard.
Dosé pulled back in and fired. Again, there was a delay, and again the Sidewinder turned inside the circle before coming back straight for the MiG. This time the missile went straight up the plane’s tail pipe. After a delay of a couple of seconds, the MiG blew up, the nose tumbling out of the explosion and slamming into the ground. The pilot, Nguyen Van Ngai, was killed.
Hawkins and Dosé maneuvered to get the other MiG and fired more missiles at it. All missed. Meanwhile, two more MiGs, also shiny new with Soviet red stars, flashed by them. The aircraft banked hard back toward them, ready to fight. Two versus three was not good odds. The Navy pilots fought their way clear, and with their Phantoms low on fuel and missiles, Hawkins called a bug out.
It was well known that an F4J could outrun a MiG-21 because the latter could not go supersonic below 10,000 feet. But, as Hawkins and Dosé flew low and fast heading for the ocean, one of the MiGs began closing quickly. The pursuing aircraft were MiG-21 PFMs, which Navy fighter crews had not yet encountered in combat, and they could go supersonic below 10,000 feet. Nevertheless, Dosé and Hawkins managed to evade the MiGs and blasted out of North Vietnam. Once over the Connie, Dosé did a victory roll. The word of their “kill” had reached the carrier’s crew, and after they landed, a celebration broke out on the flight deck.
Fast-Forward 44 Years
In 2016, Dosé visited Hanoi as a member of a group
of U.S. and North Vietnamese Vietnam War fighter pilots. Retired U.S. Marine Corps Colonel Charlie Tutt, who piloted an F-4 during the conflict, and retired Lieutenant General Nguyen Duc Soat, who flew a MiG-21, had organized the meeting and conference.8 Pilots from the formerly warring nations met and mingled in good
faith and with mutual respect. Dosé related that the experience was “amazingly positive, we were both fighting for what we believed in, and shared the same dangers and fears.”
While in Vietnam, Dosé visited Kep Air Base, a “surreal and amazing” experience, he said. The former Phantom pilot met retired Senior Colonel Tu De, a MiG-17 pilot in one of Kep’s revetments during the 10 May 1972 engagement.
Describing what the fight looked like from the ground, the colonel recalled it was a beautiful spring morning. He watched a couple of MiG-21s taking off as normal. Then, all hell broke loose as two Phantoms silently came sweeping low over the runway, vapor and shock waves coming off the jets. A couple of seconds later, big sonic booms resonated, fuel tanks from the MiGs exploded on the ground, missiles flashed off the Phantoms, and an airplane burst into flames and crashed.
Dosé and three other U.S. fighter pilots agreed to an interview with Hanoi television to be broadcast on the network. When the director of the TV program asked Dosé if he would like to meet the family of the MiG pilot he had shot down, the American “cautiously” agreed.
At the conclusion of the interview taping, Dosé met Nguyen Van Ngai’s sister Hoa and uncle Ngung. The meeting was warm, friendly, and respectful. Hoa invited Dosé to visit the family home for lunch the next day, and he accepted. During the lunch, the village Communist Party official announced that the street in front of the family home was going to be renamed “Dosé-Ngai Way.” Then Nguyen’s uncle announced that the American was now part of their family; they finally “had their fighter pilot back.” Dosé was amazed, grateful, and extremely honored.
The meeting between the Nguyen family and Curtis Dosé showed the value in coming to terms with many of the war’s hostilities and emotions. The family suffered the emotional turmoil that came with the death of Ngai as well as the privations and sacrifice that accompanied the war. Ngai’s mother long mourned his death; years after he was shot down, a plane passing overhead would cause her to cry.9
The fact Nguyen flew the first-rate MiG-21 indicated his prowess as a fighter pilot, and he displayed his flying skills during the 10 May dogfight. Dosé and Hawkins’ surprise attack caught him and his wingman in a bad situation—traveling slow and low to the ground while taking off, with full fuel tanks, and without much room to maneuver. The F-4s had practically every advantage. They had arrived at the MiG pilots’ dead six o’clock position before the communist pilots were even aware of their presence. Yet Nguyen immediately took aggressive action. He pickled-off his external fuel tanks to lessen his aircraft’s weight, thus allowing him to slam on high Gs to attempt to evade the Navy jets. He stayed low, hardly clearing the trees, and began a high-G horizontal port turn, the best way to fight an F-4.
The Nguyen family met and talked with the enemy pilot who had killed Ngai because they desired reconciliation and closure. And they understood that he would have killed Dosé if given the opportunity.11 Dosé had acceded to the meeting with the family to recognize and honor his former adversary as a worthy and honorable foe.
The former Phantom pilot said he was not a fan of war but was never ashamed, embarrassed, or regretful for anything he had done in the war. He and his fellow aviators were fighting out of a sense professional duty and in defense of an important allied nation. On most missions, Dosé did not know how many lives he took because he was attacking ground targets, often in support of U.S. and South Vietnamese troops. But he knew with all certainty he had killed Nguyen. “Those things park inside of you somewhere,” he said.
The aviator and Nguyen family’s reconciliation had a spiritual dimension. Dosé, a devout Catholic, approached the family in the Christian spirit of forgiveness and love of one’s enemies. The Nguyens’ actions reflected the influences of Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, and ancestor worship. They believe in forgiveness, peace, and life after death. The family therefore feels that Ngai is still present and part of the family. His sister Hoa affirmed that Ngai was pleased when Dosé visited him and the family.11
The reconciliation is also reflective of a broader trend in Vietnam concerning relations between that country and the United States. Vietnam desires closer U.S. economic and security ties, with its people generally wanting to forget the war and move toward a better relationship. For younger Vietnamese, who have little or no memory of the war, the conflict is rarely thought of or discussed. This is also true among the Nguyen family. They recall and honor Ngai’s service, but after the reconciliation with his final adversary, they can forget the war, move on, and “have their fighter pilot back.”12
1. This article, including quoted material, is widely based on the author’s interview with CDR Curtis R. Dosé on 23 September 2017 at the meeting of U.S. and former North Vietnamese fighter pilots in San Diego, CA, Oral History Collection, U.S. Marine Corps History Division (hereafter History Division), Quantico, VA.
2. A Sidewinder “growl” was a sound a pilot and RIO heard when the seeker head of the Sidewinder identified a heat source on which, if fired, it might guide. The louder the growl, the more pronounced the heat source and the better the chance of hitting the source.
3. CAPT Robert G. Dosé later commanded the USS Midway (CV-41) and notably was the first pilot to eject out of an F-8 Crusader fighter jet.
4. Bandits indicated enemy aircraft in a threatening position, and Blue Bandits was the call for a MiG-21 aircraft. Bullseye was Hanoi, therefore the enemy aircraft were northeast of Hanoi at about 30 miles distance.
5. Central Intelligence Agency, Kep Airfield North Vietnam, cia.gov/library/readingroom/docs/CIA-RDP79-00849A000700020009-6.pdf.
6. Central Intelligence Agency, Kep Airfield North Vietnam.
7. U.S. politicians or military leaders placed a number of restrictions on aviators. In this case, air attacks on airfields were forbidden because of the fear of injuring Soviet or Chinese advisers and drawing retaliation from their home governments.
8. The U.S.-Vietnamese reunion organization started by Tutt and Nguyen, sometimes called “Dogfight to Détente,” so far has had three annual meetings: 2016 (Hanoi), 2017 (San Diego), and 2018 (Hanoi). Its motto is “Remember the past, but move forward.” Many years after the war, Tutt and Soat were in the airline business serving Vietnam. Nguyen is a fighter ace, having downed six U.S. aircraft in the war. He later became Deputy Chief of the General Staff, People’s Army of Vietnam.
9. Email, Nguyen Tuyet Hoa to Curt Dosé, 15 May 2016, author’s possession, History Division, Quantico, VA.
10. Ngai’s flight lead, Dang Ngoc Ngu, was killed later in the war, a victim of the acclaimed U.S. Air Force fighter pilot CAPT Steve Ritchie.
11. Email, Nguyen Tuyet Hoa to Curt Dosé, 15 May 2016.
12. Curt Dosé, email to author, 23 May 2018, author’s files, History Division, Quantico, VA; Bob O’Connor, interview with author, 30 January 2019, Oral History Collection, History Division, Quantico, VA.