In the wake of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem’s assassination by officers of his armed forces on November 1, 1963, Hanoi accelerated the movement of men and materials into South Vietnam via the Ho Chi Minh Trail. To secure that corridor, North Vietnamese leaders ordered attacks on troops of the Royal Laotian Government.

Alarmed by this development in Laos, supposedly neutralized by international agreement at Geneva in 1962, Laotian Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma authorized the United States in May 1964 to conduct low-level aerial reconnaissance to gather intelligence on the North Vietnamese presence in his country. Washington readily agreed to this request because President Johnson and Secretary of Defense McNamara wanted one more means to pressure Hanoi to cease its support of the southern insurgency.

From a military standpoint, Washington needed accurate intelligence on both Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese capabilities and activities in the Plain of Jars in central and eastern Laos and the Ho Chi Minh Trail in the southern “panhandle.” Acting swiftly, Admiral Felt ordered the start of joint Navy-Air Force Operation Yankee Team on May 18. The carrier Kitty Hawk (CVA 63) and her task group immediately deployed to the soon to be famous Yankee Station at 16 degrees north/110 degrees east in the Gulf of Tonkin. Within days, Navy and Marine RF-8A Crusader and RA-3B Skywarrior reconnaissance planes began executing missions over Laos. Naval leaders considered the larger and slower Skywarrior the best plane for missions above 10,000 feet and the smaller and faster Crusader for low-level runs. A pair of EA-3Bs of Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron 1 (VQ-1) based in Japan complemented the Yankee Team effort with electronic intelligence collection.

This map depicts a number of trawlers that were intercepted by Coastal Force/ Task Force 115 units. (Naval History and Heritage Command image)

On the 21st, two days after Air Force units inaugurated the operation, a pair of Chance-Vought RF-8A aerial reconnaissance planes of Light Photographic Squadron 63 (VFP-63) launched from Kitty Hawk for the first Navy mission. Gunfire from the ground put bullet holes in one plane and set it on fire but the naval aviator managed to nurse his Crusader safely back to Kitty Hawk. This mission demonstrated what would become clear throughout the Vietnam War: that gathering naval intelligence was hazardous work. The enemy drove home that truism on June 6. That day, a North Vietnamese antiaircraft unit operating in eastern Laos shot down the RF-8A of Lieutenant Charles F. Klusmann.

Lieutenant Charles F. Klusmann

The naval aviator had the dubious distinction of being the first naval aviator shot down in the long war in Southeast Asia. Pathet Lao guerrillas quickly captured Klusmann and force-marched him to a rudimentary jungle prison camp. After almost three months in harsh captivity, the daring pilot escaped through the jungle and reached friendly lines. Following the shoot-down of another naval aviator soon after Klusmann’s loss, Secretary of Defense McNamara reduced the risk to Navy and Air Force aerial reconnaissance forces by ordering them to fly beyond the range of enemy antiaircraft guns in the most heavily defended areas of Laos. This action reduced the loss of men and planes thereafter but significantly limited the worth of the intelligence acquired. Nonetheless, the 198 aerial photographic missions completed by Navy aircraft (approximately half of all photographic missions) during the Yankee Team program convinced Washington that the Ho Chi Minh Trail was North Vietnam’s major supply line to South Vietnam.

Source: Vietnam Daybook Vol 21 4 Final