Although U.S. military involvement in Vietnam had ended with the withdrawal of the last ground combat forces in 1973, the U.S. maintained close ties with the Republic of Vietnam government and continued logistical support of their Armed Forces. Missions flown by VQ-1 had also come to a close with the final withdrawal of U.S. military forces.
By March 1975 North Vietnam launched the first attacks in direct violation of the 1973 agreement. American military forces began mustering in mid-April off the coast of South Vietnam and in bases in the Philippines, primarily NAS Cubi Point, Philippines (Navy) and Clark Air Force Base, Philippines, and at Anderson Air Force Base in Guam.
Operating as Commander Task Group (CTG) 72.5, VQ-1 positioned two EP-3Es (PR-33 and PR-35), three aircrews (Crews 33, 35 and 36), and ground support personnel at NAS Cubi Point, Philippines beginning about April 20, 1975. This task group operated as a command separate from the usual VQ-1 Detachment Cubi Point.
PR-35 and Crew 36 arrived at Cubi Point after an across-the-Pacific odyssey which found them in the Philippines after 96 straight days of deployment and flight operations.
When the call came to form and activate CTG 72.5, Crew 36 had been flying in the Sea of Japan for four and a half weeks. During that time they had flown at a higher pace than usual, been intercepted twice by Soviet Naval Aviation MiG-23s (later designated MiG-27), and in early April narrowly missed being intercepted by a North Korean MiG-21 only by the good fortune of having to abort a mission early due to an engine failure.
The flight crews began 24-hour overlapping surveillance 22 miles off the coast of South Vietnam on April 22. Missions sometimes lasted as long as 14.4 hours airborne due to the relieving aircraft and crew flying with the departing aircraft and crew for up to an hour for intelligence pass down.
The E-P3E’s were the US Navy’s last combat flights of the Vietnam War, completing their missions for that period in April 28-29 1975, Flying 24/7 as intelligence and command and control of the Evacuation of Saigon. Crew 36 actually flew the last Naval Aviation combat mission of the Vietnam War.
As CTG 72.5 VQ-1, it fell to the squadron to make the first call to recommend the beginning of Operation Frequent Wind, the evacuation of American and Vietnamese citizens, when predetermined criteria were met. After flying a week of 24-hour overlapping surveillance support, Crew 36 personnel were on-hand when the criteria were met and the first message was issued from PR-35. The designated on-scene commander used that to convince the American Ambassador to approve the evacuation which began April 29.
During the evacuation PR-35 and Crew 36 were intercepted by a North Vietnamese MiG-21PF fighter. Because of the electronic intercept capability of the EP-3E the Electronic Warfare Officer was able to detect the intercept and successfully alert the pilots to take evasive maneuvers to avoid the AA-2 Atoll AAM fired by the NVN MiG-21.
Flight operations for CTG 72.5 continued until May 7 when Crews 33 and 35 were returned to NAS Guam. Crew 36 and PR-35, after being deployed for 111 days, were relocated to Osan Air Force Base, Korea to fly several days of “exciter” missions along the DMZ between South and North Korea. Crew 36 finally returned to Guam on May 11 after being deployed for 115 continuous days.
Crew 36 had the distinction of being the only EP-3 crew to that time to be awarded the Sea Service ribbon for extended deployment.
As a result of its participation in Operation Frequent Wind, VQ-1, as a command, was awarded the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal and the Humanitarian Service Medal. The flight crews and support personnel who composed CTG 72.5 VQ-1 were also individually awarded a Meritorious Unit Commendation for meeting 100 percent of mission requirements. The three flight crews – 33, 35, and 36 – were also issued “Combat Zone Base Pay Exemption” forms for April 1975, making them the last VQ-1 Vietnam Veterans.
This ended VQ-1’s involvement in the Vietnam War in what was redesignated in 2003 as the 18th and final campaign of the Vietnam War. This also made Crews 33, 35 and 36 eligible to exchange their Armed Forces Expeditionary Medals for Vietnam Service Medals.
Michael Kelley was commissioned through Aviation Officer Candidate School at NAS Pensacola, Florida in 1973. He reported to VQ-1 in Guam in June 1974, following advanced Electronic Warfare training. He flew the last EC-121M Lockheed Super Constellation deployment before the Super Constellation was retired from VQ-1. He was deployed with Crew 36 for its extended odyssey and sent the message advising the Task Force Commander to begin the Vietnam evacuation. He left VQ-1 in December 1976, and went on to teach Leadership and Management and fly the ERA-3B Douglas Skywarrior on Electronic Warfare Aggressor missions with the Firebirds of VAQ-33 as Electronic Warfare Aircraft Model Manager, Mission Commander, NATO Coordinator and, at the time, the only O3 (Lieutentant) designated as an Event Commander.
By LT Michael “Mad Dog” Kelley, USN