Ten Sailors gave their lives during the Vietnam War in the defense of their country while flying over the South China Sea on December 12, 1971.
The surviving family members directly petitioned the Navy, through official Navy channels, to have the names of their loved ones placed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, DC. However, none of the names of the crew, or passengers, of flight RG-407 are inscribed. This report seeks to inform key decision makers to address this missing honor by providing as complete a picture as possible of the circumstances surrounding this flight, its crew, and its mission. It is our sincere hope that a fresh set of eyes and a clearer, modern-day perspective of both Navy cryptologic and logistical support operations will cast the Sailors’ Vietnam Memorial Wall eligibility in a more favorable light.
Rank Name Age Squadron Home of Record
LT Vetal C. LaMountain 28 VRC-50 Elmont, NY
LTjg Gale V. Woolsey 24 VRC-50 Edwards, IL
ABH3 Richard C. Gaynor 21 VRC-50 Oak View, CA
AN James M. VanBussum 22 VRC-50 Owensboro, KY
Rank Name Age PERMDUSTA Home of Record
CTOC Donald E. Dickerson 34 NCS San Miguel Chowchilla, CA
CTR1 Walter R. Woods 25 NCS San Miguel Long Beach, CA
CTM2 Gregory K. Zeller 23 NCS San Miguel Pasadena, CA
CTO3 James M. Coon 20 NCS San Miguel Van Wert, OH
CTOSN Stephen H. Elliott 21 NCS San Miguel Rock Island, IL
CTISN John R. Deremigio 25 NSGA Misawa Logansport, IN
At 0844 on 12 December, 1971, a Fleet Tactical Support Squadron FIFTY (VRC-50) Detachment Cubi Point, Philippines C-2A “Greyhound” aircraft, RG-407, took off from Naval Air Station Cubi Point en route Tan Son Nhut airbase Saigon, Vietnam. On board the flight were the C-2A crew, comprised of four members of the VRC-50 squadron, five Cryptologic Technicians (CTs) stationed at Naval Communications Station (NAVCOMSSTA) San Miguel, Philippines, and one CT from Naval Security Group Activity (NSGA) Misawa, Japan. The ultimate destination of the plane, its crew, and its passengers was the USS Enterprise – CVN-65 (formerly, CVAN-65) patrolling off the coast of Singapore and about to head into the Bay of Bengal for 30 days to patrol and monitor an escalating conflict between India and Pakistan. The carrier would return to the Vietnam Combat Zone and its position on YANKEE STATION on 19 January, 1972.
Hours later, when RG-407 was discovered to be overdue for Tan Son Nhut air base, the VRC-50 Detachment Cubi Point Operations Officer reported the situation to the VRC-50 Detachment Atsugi, Japan Duty Officer and advised the 13th Air Force Joint Rescue Coordination Center at Clark Air Base. Having launched the rescue effort over seven hours late, it was dark before SAR units could reach the search area. The USS Coral Sea (CVA-43) and the USS Epperson (DD-719) turned to join in the search and rescue effort at 1630, with the Coral Sea launching two SAR helicopters at 2330.
At the end of a fruitless all-night search for survivors, just before dawn, at 0615 13 December, 1971, a raft (with evidence of charring consistent with onboard fire) was spotted by the crew of Helicopter Support Squadron One Detachment Six (HC-1 DET 6) of the USS Coral Sea. The wreckage, which was positively identified as belonging to RG-407, was found at 13˚08’N 117˚08’E. The search continued, with rescue swimmers finding mail, and “some personal belongings,” but, “barely any plane wreckage.” The deflated life raft and other small debris “…which appeared to be valuable or useful to an investigation” were retrieved. However, “there was so much small debris over such a large area that the (helicopters) had to be selective of what was picked up.” No bodies were recovered from the crash site. Based on the average cruising speed of a C-2A, the wreckage of RG-407 at its closest point of approach to the combat zone was a mere 74 minutes of flight time. At this point, the families of the victims were notified via telegram that the crew was missing at sea. The search for survivors was officially called off on 13 December at 1645, just over 31 hours from RG-407s last known transmission.
The wreckage was transported via the USS Coral Sea back to the hangar at Cubi Point, where investigators made their determination that the plane “most likely impacted the water relatively intact.” Based on this evidence, the board concluded that “the cause of this mishap is undetermined,” however, their best guess was that “the most probable cause was a catastrophic in-flight failure of a propeller/gearbox with resultant aircraft damage.” Pilot error and sabotage via either enemy combatants or suicide were ruled out by the AAR Board after a check of the VRC-50 crew’s flight history and credentials, and a check of the medical records for the crew and passengers.
In the wake of this accident, the Navy’s investigating body recommended the immediate cessation of all C-2A aircraft operations Navy-wide until a determination could be made of their air-worthiness. As was referenced in RG-407’s aircraft accident report, The Navy followed the board’s recommendation and grounded all C-2A aircraft for months after the crash. Further, VRC-50 soon discontinued all COD service from staging out of Cubi Point, PI, while quickly and permanently moving all COD operations to South Vietnam with its C-1A “TRADER” aircraft.
On the evening of 13 December, 1971, the families of all ten Sailors were officially notified by the Chief of Naval Personnel, Vice Admiral D. H. Guinn, via Western Union telegram, that the search for survivors was over and that no remains had been found. In addition to his deepest sympathies, he also stated in each telegram that all had died on a “scheduled logistical support mission” from Cubi Point to Tan Son Nhut, Vietnam, and added that each had “died in the service of his country.” The designation of the C-2A flight as a “scheduled logistic support mission” would have ramifications which would last for decades that no one in 1971 could have possibly foreseen.
Logistics and Direct Support Re-conceptualized
For almost 30 years, the Navy has officially stated that the Sailors who lost their lives on flight RG-407 were ineligible for inclusion on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall for two reasons. First, they were not killed in the Vietnam Combat Zone as defined by Executive Order 11216. Since the wreckage found that day, almost 200NM southwest of the Philippines, was positively identified by the Coral Sea’s SAR personnel as belonging to RG-407, the fact that they crashed outside the combat zone is beyond dispute. The second criterion that disqualified RG-407’s crew was the fact that they were flying a “scheduled logistics mission” and were not involved in direct support to ground combat operations. It is this very designation as a logistics flight, however, which actually makes the case for the both the crew and its embarked CT personnel to be added to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall.
While the location of the C-2A was, without question, outside the defined combat zone, there is no doubt that the crew of RG-407 and the CTs embarked on the C-2A that day were unequivocally involved in “direct support of military operations in the CZ”. Besides the CT personnel, the plane was carrying mail and cargo, including a “gyro in a revisable glass container.” Since the records of the plane’s complete cargo manifest have been destroyed (they were not attached to the accident report), there is no way to know for certain where all of the plane’s cargo was headed. However, it is reasonable to expect that at least some of the plane’s cargo was destined for use in Vietnam, or on ships patrolling the Tonkin Gulf inside the defined Vietnam Combat Zone.
While the unambiguous DoD guidelines governing the rules for adding names to the Vietnam Wall, when coupled with the new DoD definitions of “direct support”, lead to the conclusion that RG-407s crew meet the criteria for the Vietnam Wall, an in-depth discussion of flight RG-407’s origins, tasking, and personnel complement should be reviewed. This should be done so as to conclusively prove the case for all ten Sailors, both the crew from VRC-50 Detachment Cubi Point, Philippines, and the six Sailors from NAVCOMSTA San Miguel, Philippines, and NSGA Misawa, Japan.
A Flight Far From Routine
In order to properly account for, and explain the circumstances surrounding, the 12 December, 1971, flight of RG-407, and its crew, a measure of context is needed. In December, 1971, numerous bases on the Republic of the Philippines, in particular those located near Subic Bay, routinely provided a staging area for personnel and materiel to be used by the various US Navy battlegroups on patrol in the Gulf of Tonkin. This fixed geographic point off the coast of Vietnam, called “YANKEE STATION”, was located close to the 17th parallel, east of the Vietnamese Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).
One of the many air squadrons to provide support to the Navy battlegroups was Fleet Tactical Support Squadron Fifty (VRC-50), homeported out of Naval Air Station North Island, California. VRC-50 maintained a forward-deployed squadron in Atsugi, Japan, and a smaller forward-deployed squadron at Naval Air Station Subic Bay, Philippines. The VRC-50 squadron C-2A “Greyhound” aircraft were primarily involved with “carrier onboard delivery” (COD) flights. Ordinarily, COD flights to and from the carriers on YANKEE STATION were routine; however “by their very nature” they “required independent aircraft operation.”
This particular C-2A flight, however, was far from routine. First, the widow of CTR1 Woods recalls that her husband and his fellow CTs attempted to reach the USS Enterprise on a commercial flight out of Manila International airport on December 10th and 11th. However, due to visa and passport issues, the CTs could not get clearance to leave. This visa problem is what necessitated the last-minute scheduling of RG-407 to the Enterprise on the morning of 12 December. Further, because this flight carried CT personnel, there were classified messages directing RG-407 which necessitated extra measures of security to be taken by the plane crew. Also, the flight was not a usual or “regularly scheduled” COD flight to a carrier on YANKEE STATION. Because this flight was ultimately bound for the USS Enterprise, special instructions and flight planning were needed, including staging the flight through Tan Son Nhut air base in South Vietnam. According to the Navy’s own crash investigation:
The aircraft was scheduled on this particular mission to an unfamiliar area which required staging through Tan Son Nhut Air Base, RVN. The detachment Operations Officer (LCDR Cole) gave LT LaMountain a general briefing on the flight requirement at 2200 (local) the preceding night. In addition, LT LaMountain read the classified messages directing this particular mission.
If this flight was a routine “scheduled logistics mission,” there would have been no need for a pre-briefing of the mission’s requirements the night before. Ordinarily, LT LaMountain would be solely responsible for “the flight planning, crew briefing and supervision” for the normal COD flights, but again, this flight was tasked via classified message traffic. LT LaMountain was a seasoned Navy pilot; a highly-respected member of VRC-50 who was “very knowledgeable of the C-2A”, and had “considerable flying experience in the Southeast Asian environment”. LT LaMountain, along with his co-pilot for this particular mission, LTjg Gale V. Woolsey Jr., had made 16 combined carrier-based landings in the previous month. The two Naval aviators had almost 90 combined carrier landings total, none of which have any record of needing classified message traffic to direct the flight.
AN James VanBussum, RG-407’s plane captain, was not unfamiliar with flying in Southeast Asia either. He and his fellow enlisted crewman on this flight, ABN3 Richard C. Gaynor, RG-407’s loadmaster, had at least a year and a half of experience flying aboard C-2A aircraft. According to the Navy’s crash investigation, both AN VanBussum and ABH3 Gaynor were well-qualified fliers, “adequately trained and properly qualified for their assigned duties.”
Interestingly, AN VanBussum had sent a letter back home to his parents in Owensboro, KY. Dated 30 August, 1970 the letter is written about a next-day C-2A flight to Danang, Vietnam, in which he wrote that he and his crew were “going to drop off some people…just long enough to drop them off and get the hell out of their(sic).” The page that AN VanBussum sent along with the letter is a flight schedule for VRC-50 on 31 August, 1970, where the mission for the flight is listed as “DANANG DEPLOY”. Nowhere on the flight schedule is this particular C-2A’s mission listed as “logistics”. It is very fortunate that this record of VRC-50’s flight operations is still in existence, as flight schedules and passenger manifests are normally destroyed after five years. But, if the deployment of personnel to Danang, Vietnam on 31 August, 1970, is not considered “logistics” but rather “troop deployment”, then why was the ill-fated 12 December, 1971, C-2A, which was also carrying personnel to Vietnam, not considered “troop deployment” as well? The answer most probably lies in the secrecy which surrounded Naval Cryptology in the early 1970’s and before, along with the classified nature of the personnel who were the backbone of Naval Cryptology, the Cryptologic Technicians.
“They Served in Silence”
In 1996, the National Security Agency, itself an intelligence organization of the Department of Defense, dedicated its own Memorial Wall to our nation’s Cryptologists, both active duty military and civilians, who gave their lives “in the line of duty,” while performing cryptologic operations. The NSA Memorial Wall currently contains the names of 166 DoD personnel who were lost over the course of five decades. Like the Vietnam Memorial, the names of the cryptologists are listed in the order of the date of casualty. It is interesting to note that the list currently begins and ends with Navy cryptologists, starting with CT3 Edward J Purcell, who perished just three years after NSA’s inception in 1947, and ending with SPC John A. Pelham, USA, who made the ultimate sacrifice on February 12, 2014.
Among the 166 names on NSA’s wall are the names of all six CTs who perished in the South China Sea aboard RG-407 on 12 December, 1971. NSA has recognized on its official website that on that day these six Sailors, “paid the ultimate price in service to our country.” Unfortunately, the four members of VRC-50 Detachment Cubi Point who were lost that day are not eligible for inscription on NSA’s Memorial Wall, because NSA’s criteria includes only those NSA/CSS personnel who are directly engaged in carrying out cryptologic operations on its wall.
“Welcome to Dickerson Hall”
On 10 September, 1976, after a year-long barracks renovation, the Sailors at NSGA Fort Meade dedicated their BEQ to CTOC Donald E. Dickerson. Dickerson had been stationed at Fort Meade from 1965-68; a tour which culminated in his recognition by the NSA/CSS as a stellar performer and the awarding of a Joint Service Commendation Medal.
The ceremony was attended by Dickerson’s wife and three daughters, and was presided over by then-Director of the National Security Agency/Central Security Service LTGen Lew Allen. RADM G. P. March, who was the head of the Naval Security Group Command, was also in attendance. Ultimately, it was RADM March’s decision to have the building named for Chief Petty Officer Dickerson. Shortly after his death, CPO Dickerson’s wife petitioned to the Navy to have her husband promoted posthumously to Chief. The Navy agreed with Mrs. Dickerson and granted her request. Chief Dickerson is listed on a plaque inside the barracks as “CTOC”. NSA, however, lists his name on their Memorial as “CTO1”.
Regardless of the rank disparity, it is worth noting that at one point the Navy, several years before the dedication of the Vietnam Memorial and just over one year after the last remaining US personnel were evacuated from Saigon, thought highly enough of Chief Petty Officer Dickerson’s Naval service and his ultimate sacrifice, that they named an enlisted barracks for him.
For 30 years, the families left behind by the Sailors of flight RG-407 have been told by the US Navy that, despite their loved-one’s sacrifice, their deaths fell short of the criteria necessary for the Vietnam Memorial. One of the letters even went as far as to state that, though the Wall was built to honor all who served in Vietnam, “the names inscribed thereon are intended to afford special recognition to those whose deaths were combat-related.” It says this one paragraph before stating that, “this decision does not, in any way, diminish the significance of your (loved-one’s) distinguished service to the Navy and our Nation.” However, the classification of RG-407s flight as a simple “logistics” flight, unworthy of inscription Wall by the old Navy standards does, in fact, diminish the significance of their sacrifice somewhat.
The Navy has never independently investigated the circumstances of this crash using the DoD’s current definition of direct support. Unfortunately, the family members who petitioned the Navy were not armed with enough knowledge, the requisite clearance-level, or a fundamental background in cryptology to present the case for their family members with a complete picture of all the pertinent details. As active duty Sailors and Naval Cryptologists stationed, literally, in the shadow of NSA, our generation has everything necessary to make their case for them. We are the last, best hope for the crew of RG-407 to be honored on the Vietnam Wall. Make no mistake – these are our Sailors. Our team has done our utmost to remain dispassionate when looking at the evidence of this flight, but it is hard to remain unemotional when what is discovered flies in the face of reason, and defies current military context and convention. It is time for the crew and CTs to join their fellow countrymen on the Vietnam Memorial Wall.
By CTIC(SG) Christopher A. Patti.