Looking back at Operation Homecoming on POW/MIA Day (James Clements)

In an AAFES parking lot at Hickam AFB, Hawaii, rests a plaque dedicated to former POWs from the Vietnam war, including some from the 388th Fighter Wing. It’s easy to walk past plaques, but this one is worth stopping to consider.

For nearly a decade before it moved to Hill Air Force Base, the 388th Tactical Fighter Wing waged its share of the Vietnam War from its home at Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base. From that base, located 135 miles northeast of Bangkok, the wing flew over 93,000 combat hours over Laos and North Vietnam.

Its size and composition varied between 1965-1972, but during that period it comprised up to six flying squadrons, including the 13th Tactical Fighter Squadron (now at Misawa AB, Japan), the 17th Wild Weasel Squadron (now at Nellis AFB), the 34th TFS (with the wing at Hill today), the 42nd Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron (now at Davis-Monthan AFB), the 44th TFS (now at Kadena AB), the 421st TFS (also part of the wing today), the 469th TFS (now at Sheppard AFB), and the 553rd Recon Squadron (now inactive). Toward the end of American involvement in Vietnam in the late summer of 1973, the wing drew down gradually before arriving at Hill in late 1975.

For most of its combat history over Vietnam, the wing flew the F-105 Thunderchief, the famous and problematic “Thud.”

At the time, it was the U.S. Air Force’s most advanced fighter-bomber, capable of nearly 1,400 miles per hour at top speed and holding 12,000 pounds of ordnance. Beginning in 1968 the wing was also equipped with the F-4 Phantom II, another very capable fighter-bomber carrying 16,000 pounds of ordnance.

These jets flew missions that ranged from the interdiction of North Vietnamese units crossing Laos on their way to South Vietnam to the bombing of infrastructure and industrial centers near the North Vietnamese capital of Hanoi. Even fully loaded, neither was a sitting duck, and both possessed a remarkable ability to take punishment.

However, both typically made low- and mid-level approaches to well-defended targets. These were frequently ringed by Soviet-built SA-2 radar-guided surface-to-air missiles (SAM) and any number of old and newer French and Soviet anti-aircraft guns. Flights of F-105s might suffer attacks before, during, and after their bombing runs from SAMs (fired both with and without radar guidance), anti-aircraft artillery, and enemy pilots, who flew Soviet-built MiG 17s, 19s, and 21s, all capable interceptors. As a result, the wing lost over 180 “Thuds” and 17 Phantoms during its eight years based at Korat.

The rescue of pilots who went down in combat was itself dangerous.

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