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U.S. Marine Corps F-4 Phantom II Units of the Vietnam War

by Peter E. Davies, Osprey Publishing, 2012

In contrast to its previous tradition of making do with whatever aircraft the Navy could spare or didn’t want, the U.S. Marine Corps had as much say as the Navy in the four-year development of the McDonnell F-4H Phantom II. “This does present some unique design requirements,” Marine Lt. Col. Thomas H. Miller told aviation historian Peter E. Davies.“The Navy’s primary concern was for the protection of its ships at sea, while the Marine Corps’ was the protection of its highly mobile forces ashore.”

Once it finally entered service, the Phantom proved versatile enough to satisfy both services’ needs and more— during the Vietnam War it unloaded a variety of ordnance, served as a useful highspeed photoreconnaissance plane and did well enough in air-to-air combat to be adopted by the U.S. Air Force as well.

Davies’ book focuses principally on the ground war in the south, where the Phantom crews’ close-support missions sometimes made the difference between life and death for their fellow Marines, who faced Viet Cong ambushes one day and sieges by the North Vietnamese Army the next. The Marine air units often found conditions at their airbases as rugged as those of the ground grunts’ firebases, and occasionally had to “borrow” Navy ordnance or even improvise their own napalm bombs.The latter were sometimes hazards in themselves, being vulnerable to intense enemy groundfire or even igniting on their own. Regardless, the Marine units chalked up hundreds of missions and sterling records of upholding an air-ground variation on the credo that “Marines don’t leave Marines behind.”

“Most of us dreamed of encountering a MiG,” remarked Colonel Denis Kiely, but the Marine Phantom crews were not used to air-to-air combat. In VMFA-232’s only such encounter on Aug. 26, 1972, one of its F-4Js became the fifth victory for MiG-21 ace Nguyen Duc Soat of the North Vietnamese 927th Fighter Regiment; its pilot 1st Lt. Sam G. Cordova, being killed, though his radar intercept officer,1st Lt.Darrell L.Borders,was rescued. The Marines got some revenge on September 11, when Major Lee Lasseter and Captain John Cummings of VMFA-333, operating from the aircraft carrier America, scored a Sidewinder hit on a MiG-21.

Besides serving as forward air controllers, specialized Marine RF-4Bs became popular with their crews in reconnaissance roles.“The cockpit fitted like a glove,”said Colonel Ed Love,commander of Da Nang– based VMCJ-3, “and all the controls and switches were where you expected them to be. You added throttle and there was an immediate burst of power.”

Illustrated with a plethora of color photos and 30 profiles with plenty of information on the extended careers of individual aircraft, U.S. Marine Corps Phantom II Units is equally endowed with rich recollections and anecdotes.


Originally published in the June 2013 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.