Remembering LTJG David Christian and the Crew of VR703 Remembering The Men From VAW-13

Remembering David Christian and the men lost attempting his rescue.

Footage is from National Archive.


Overview.

On June 2, 1965, LTJG David Marion Christian was shot down while conducting a ground strike during Operation Rolling Thunder. His squadmate, LT John Bryan McKamey, and the four-man crew from VAW-13 assisting his SAR mission were also shot down while attempting his rescue. By the end of that day three airplanes were down, six airmen lost. It was one of the most significant losses to the Midway to date.

Questions regarding Christian's fate.

Four months after Christian was shot down, he appeared in the October 11, 1965 edition of the Russian Newspaper PRAVDA causing concern about his possible survival and capture. Two years later a classified document was delivered to the Christian's by the Naval Intelligence Command saying he had survived creating more questions about his fate.

Their names are still on the mission board.

The USS Midway Museum has kept their names on the launch status board in the Primary Flight Control Center. Over 5 million visitors pass through, most never knowing the incredible story enshrined on this board.

Their Names on the USS Midway Musuem Pri Fly Board

Photo provided by the researchers at the USS Midway Museum.

Timeline of June 2, 1965.

Officer In Charge of SAR MissionChristian’s strike team left the USS Midway early in the morning. They rendezvoused with a Douglas A-3 Skywarrior for refueling; then flew to their mission target in the Thanh Hóa Province. Christian was hit by ground fire about five miles from the coastline while returning to the Midway. He radioed his wingman (CDR John Dewenter) that his main fuel line had been struck and his engine was out. He stayed in his plane and coasted about two more miles trying to get to the water as he was trained to do. His Commander reported his location and saw him eject about 150 to 90 meters from the ground. His Commander also reported that he lost sight of him while passing through a low cloud formation. The crew flying VR703, an EA-1F Skyraider from Midway’s Carrier Airborne Early Warning Squadron VAW-13, picked up an emergency beacon and got a bearing on that location. Back on the Midway another EA-1F Skyraider had been readied to supply support but experienced an electronic failure, so VR703 was diverted to that location to provide close-in support so a SAR helicopter could attempt a rescue. While on site, VR703 took ground fire and crashed. Other SAR pilots witness VR703's crash and determined it was not survivable. One crewmember from VR703 attempted to bailed out but his parachute did not open. Intelligence reported his body washed ashore a week later. According to the Joint Task Force Full Account Report the final coordinates of VR703 were within 100 yards of Christian's last known location. The coordinates show a Sầm Sơn beach with a small inlet area. Christian's location was on the beach on the west side of the inlet. VR703 crashed into the water inlet just yards to the east of his location.

Interactive map shows the coordinates given in the final accounting report.


A new eyewitness account of Christian's status.

Christian's final report concluded he didn't survive ejection from his stricken aircraft, however a 12/27/2023 account by the officer in charge of VR703, says Christian had been spotted and was awaiting rescue.

Officer In Charge of SAR Mission"I was the O-in-C of the Detachment aboard the Midway.

The following account is put together from memory, internet sources, and the book, Midway Magic. It is undoubtedly not accurate in every detail but is the best I can do. On June 2nd the Air Wing attacked a target just south of Thanh Hoa. I don’t remember what the target was. Possibly a bridge, a munitions storage area, or some other military target. There were A-4s and A-1s from Midway involved, and one of our EA-1Fs was along to provide active ECM for the strike.

An A-4 from VA-23 was hit and the pilot successfully ejected. He came down close to the water and was seen by other pilots to be trying to get to the water. As usual in a combat operation there was chaos and conflicting reports. It appears that the pilot had reached the water but was being pursued by North Vietnamese troops. Our EA-1F was piloted by LTJG M. D. McMican. His crew consisted of LTJG Gerry Romano as Radar operator/ECM coordinator, and the two enlisted ECM operators, ATN-3 Tom Plants and ATR-3 Bill Amspacher.

Someone called for close air support to keep the North Vietnamese away from the A-4 pilot. M. D. was in position to do that. Even though we were not officially supposed to engage in attacking the enemy with our 20mms it is plain that M. D. saw no reason not to jump in and help a fellow aviator in need. He made a strafing pass down the beach. He may, in fact, have made more than one pass. At some point, however, the North Vietnamese, who had some heavy machine guns, blasted away at the SPAD, damaging it enough to make it uncontrollable. An eyewitness, LCDR Ed Greathouse from VA-25, was about a half mile away and said he saw the airplane pull up, roll half over, and crash on the beach in a ball of flame.

Someone else, I don’t know who, thought he saw one of the SPAD crewmembers attempt to bail out. The EA-1F was so low there was no chance for success. The ultimate result was the loss of the crew of the EA-1F, and the A-4 pilot, LTJG David Christian.

A further loss was that of LT John McKamey of VA-23. His plane was downed but he successfully ejected; only to be captured and spend the next seven years in the Hanoi Hilton. It is not clear if McKamey was shot down as he attempted to cover LTJG Christian or if his shoot down was related to the attack on the main target.

What was clear as the strike aircraft returned to Midway was that three did not make it back. Word spread around the ship like wildfire. This was something new. Midway’s losses had not been on this order of magnitude before. The score was: Three airplanes down, six aircrew down; and five of the six probably dead. It was a major blow.

I flew the next mission because I felt it necessary to lead by flying after we had suffered such a loss. The losses of war were hard to digest, but the attacks had to go on. We kept on the attack.

In addition, my job was to make sure that our squadron-mates’ gear was inventoried, and official letters were sent to the next of kin. The first decision to be made was: Were they missing in action (MIA) or were they killed in action (KIA)?

The Commanding Officer of Midway, CAPT James O’Brien, called me to his cabin to discuss this decision. He was a veteran of Korea. It had been his experience that sending MIA notices to next of kin was a cruel thing to do when a crash appeared not to be survivable. Yes, miracles do happen and sometimes people survive against all odds. However, it had been his experience that many people had been told their loved ones were MIA, which caused them to hold onto hope for years and years when that time could have been better spent in the grieving process. It was his opinion, and I agreed, that it was better to use the phrase, presumed killed in action, bodies not recovered. That didn’t hold out false hope to the survivors.

As I sat in my cubbyhole room aboard ship trying to compose letters to the families of my squadron mates; I felt deep sorrow, anger, and guilt. I hoped to express to their families how much M.D., Gerry, Bill, and Tom meant to our detachment. The words did not come easy. Maybe one of the hardest jobs I've ever done. Somehow, I got all the letters written and VA-25’s best typist typed them up. They were on their way. However, I knew in my heart that nothing could alleviate the pain of such losses.

Another cruel thing was that we, the squadron mates, had to go on flying, go on doing our job, and without time to grieve; without time to come to terms with the enormity of it all. Each day we would fly north because that was where the enemy was. And our grief was stuffed in the back of our minds.

A twist on this story is that the crew for the primary airplane for this mission was pilot, LTJG Jim Parkes, and his RIO, LTJG Bill Welch. (I don’t know the enlisted crewmen’s names.) They had a problem with their electrical equipment so the standby airplane with M. D. and his crew was launched. Fate?

Some of my old mates from VAW-13 thought M. D. was a bit too gung-ho and maybe too reckless. I have to agree that M. D. was young and enthusiastic. However, when I ask myself if I would have done the same thing had I been in his shoes, I have to answer that I most likely would have. Let no man judge another unless he has walked in his shoes or flown in his cockpit.

Three days after the loss, the Midway stood down for four hours to hold a memorial service for our lost brothers. I stood out in front of VAW-13 Det. Midway as we paid our last respects. It was an impressive sendoff. At sea funerals have a gravitas that normal funerals don't seem to have. I'm not ashamed to admit that tears rolled down my cheeks. I will never forget that day or M.D. and his crew.

Many years later the remains of M.D., Gerry, Tom, and Bill were finally returned to their families for burial, putting an end to their families’ questions and providing fitting heroes’ burials."

Account provided by retired CDR James Glendenning.


October 11, 1965 Russian newspaper article.

Four months after Christian's disappearance, concerns began when his name, physical description, and detailed list of his personal belongings appeared in the Russian newspaper PRAVDA (The Truth).

PRAVDA Article Final Accounting Report PRAVDA Article Final Accounting Report Final Accounting Report

The PRAVDA article was written by Viktor V. Sharapov, a Russian Journalist who was a General with the KGB and later went on to be the Ambassador for Bulgaria. Naval Intelligence documents place Sharapov at the crash site 10 days after it occurred. In 1997 U.S. team members from JCSD interviewed Sharapov about his visits to various crash sites. He told them he had kept notes as a journalist and turned all his notes and photos over to the PRAVDA archives. He then informed the U.S. team members that he had chronicled most of his crash site and POW interviews in three books he had written.

PRAVDA Article


December 1, 1967 classified document.

Two years after Christian's disappearance, a classified document was hand-delivered to the Christian family by the Naval Intelligence Command which suggested Christian had survive. During this visit, Navy Captain Williams relayed its sensitive nature, and asked that its information be held in the strictest of confidence. Captain Williams would not leave this document with the Christian. It was kept classified until March 21, 2024, when it was finally released due to a Congressional Inquiry conducted by Senator John Fetterman's office.

PRAVDA Article


Discrepancy cases.

Christian's remains were returned on April 10, 1986. But his case (Refno 0092) stayed open until March 14, 1994. According to TIME magazine 1992 article "The Truth at Last", intelligence analysts classified 196 Killed In Action/Body Not Recovered (KIA/BNR) cases as Discrepancy Cases, which were assigned when the U.S. knew an individual survived a plane crash but was not able to account for him afterwards.

Christian's mother and family inspected the remains in 1986, and strongly disagreed that they were David Christian’s remains since he had very distinctive front teeth that didn't match the remains returned and because the medical report determined they were of a left-handed individual -- Christian was right-handed. Handedness was determined by density of the bone areas where the muscle attachments are located. An independent forensic examination of the remains was commissioned which did not concur that the remains returned were that of David Christian.

Christian's case was classified as a Discrepancy (Category 2) case. The Category 2 cases recieved the highest priority when the joint Joint Casualty Resolution Center (JCRC) and Vietnamese Office For Seeking Missing Persons (VNOSMP) restarted thier recovery efforts in the mid 1980s.

In fact, Christian’s negotiation folder was chosen as one of the first of eight priority Discrepancy Cases to begin the renewed task of joint JCRC and VNOSMP recovery efforts and was kept open until 1994 due to CIA Operation Swamp Ranger, which took place in 1992 when a US humanitarian (Theodore Schweitzer) was allowed access to Central Military Museum's secret archives.

Discrepancy CIA Unresolved Cases


Their belongings and records were found at the Military Museum in Hanoi

On May 28, 1991, the Joint Research Team visited the Military Museum in Hanoi. The museum staff showed the team records consisting of various artifacts related to the loss of VR703 and David Christian. These records and artifacts consisted of military accounts of the incident, ID papers, personal belongings, flight gear, and parts of their planes including the serial number plate (132540) of the EA1-F Skyraider VR703.

CIA Meeting Notes Museum Inventory SheetMuseum Inventory SheetCIA Meeting Notes CIA Meeting Notes CIA Meeting Notes CIA Meeting Notes Museum Inventory Sheet


Recovery efforts.

According to the book M.I.A.: Accounting for the Missing in Southeast Asia, by Paul Mather, remains were recovered and repatriated on April 10, 1986 by the Vietnamese for a pilot who was shot down in the Thanh Hoa area. The details of this account fit Christian's location and time period for his recovery date.

Officer In Charge of SAR Mission Officer In Charge of SAR Mission

1) Photo shows a joint American-Vietnamese team crossing a reservoir near Thanh Hoa en route to a crash recovery site. Source: M.I.A.: Accounting for the Missing in Southeast Asia, Paul Mather. 2) Newspaper article showing the date that Christian's remains were returned on April 10, 1986.


Who was Lieutenant JG David Marion Christian?

David Marion ChristianHe was born in 1941 in Oakland California and moved to Lane Kansas where his family helped with their relatives' farms and other business. After his family moved back to California, He stayed in Kansas to attend Emporia State University and later Kansas State University. He then enrolled in Naval Aviation Officer Candidate School (AOCS) at NAS Pensacola. Once commissioned, Naval Aviators went through ground school and flight training in the T-28 Trojan, a propeller-driven aircraft, followed by jet training in the T-2 Buckeye. He went on to receive final ground attack and carrier landing training in A-4s from the Fleet Replacement Squadron (FRS) at NAS Lemoore before assignment to a deploying squadron (VA-23 The Black Knights) also based there.

He was described as an athletic, intelligent young man with a great love for his family. He enjoyed singing in the Youth for Christ Quartet. But most of all he wanted to serve his country and had a strong sense of patriotism, which he expressed from a very early age.

Description provided by Truman W. Christian.

Home State: Lakeside California & Lane Kansas
Parents: Jess & Ethel Christian
High School: Grossmont, La Mesa, CA
College: Kansas State University, Emporia State University
Naval Aviation Officer Candidate School (AOCS): Naval Air Station (NAS), Pensacola FL
Fleet Replacement Squadron (FRS) Training: Naval Air Station (NAS), Lemoore CA

Squadron: VA-23 Black Knights - Ground Attack Squadron
Plane: A4-E Skyhawk (Buno: 151144 Modex: NE348)
Carrier: USS Midway CVA-41
Call Sign: Law Case 348
Case No: 0092-1-01

Commendations:

Commendations and Awards

He is buried or memorialized at Courts of the Missing at the Honolulu Memorial and Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, San Diego. This is a National American Cemetery administered through the Department of Veteran's Affairs. He is honored on the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial in Washington DC. Name inscribed at VVM Wall, Panel 01e, Line 129.

Visit him at the Vietnam Memorial Wall here.

His Bio can be seen here.

Source: www.honorstates.org


About VAW-13 Carrier Airborne Early Warning Squadron 13 and the specialized EA-1F Douglas Skyraider VR703 they flew.

Crewmembers:

Image Viewer Image Viewer Image Viewer Image Viewer Image Viewer Image Viewer

AE-1F SkyraiderVR703

Photo of EA-1F Skyraider VR703 provided by retired CDR James Glendenning.

VAW-13 was an unorthodox squadron. The Navy did not have enough EA-1Fs to put a detachment aboard every deployed aircraft carrier. An alternative solution was decided upon. The main squadron, with about 24 aircraft, was based at NAS Alameda. This unit conducted training of crews to deploy to NAS Cubi Point in the Philippines. It also conducted ECM exercises with carriers that were preparing to deploy to WESPAC.
 
The unit at Cubi Point was designated as VAW-13 Detachment One. The mission was to send two plane detachments out to operate off carriers that were operating south of Taiwan in the South China Sea. This operation was to ensure the Navy had an ECM capability in the far west Pacific theater if war broke out.
 
Detachment One had about 12 aircraft with 30 officers and 100 enlisted men. We usually had a full schedule of ECM exercises with U.S. Navy ships and when we had the capacity, with Royal Navy and Australian Navy ships.
 
The EA-1F carried a crew of four. A pilot, a Naval Flight Officer who operated the radars, and two ECM operators who did the ECM collection and jamming. The aircraft was normally equipped with two jammer pods, two chaff dispensers, two ECM receivers, an APS 31 terrain following radar, and an APS 19 high-definition radar that allowed targeting of other aircraft. The aircraft were normally fitted with a 300-gallon centerline tank to allow missions of up to eight hours. All aircraft were equipped with four 20mm canons and an optical sight that projected a reticle on the forward wind screen. The 20mms were primarily self-defense weapons. The fact that two MIGs were shot down in North Vietnam by A-1s using 20MMs demonstrated that they would have been useful if attacked.
 
The ECM equipment was dated and powered by vacuum tubes, which provided a maintenance challenge since every carrier landing imposed an unavoidable jolt on the electronics.
 
The airplane and crew were capable of collecting electronic intelligence - finding what kinds of radars were being used and where they were located. However, most of the missions in Vietnam were active jamming missions against the Fire Can or Fan Song radars that the enemy anti-aircraft batteries were equipped with.
 
The squadron had some highly skilled electronics techs. In 1964 they developed an omni-directional jamming antenna that provided more complete coverage than the directional jamming pods that had been standard. The directional jammers were effective up to 50 miles, but they had to be pointed directly at the radar. That presented problems of coverage when the radar location was not easy to determine.

The omni-directional antennas were effect iv up to 15 miles and gave more complete jamming coverage. When the air war against North Vietnam began, we were able to go over the targets at 8,000 to 10,000 feet. With two airplanes jamming and dropping chaff, we could successfully keep the enemy radars from acquiring targets.
 
That was our standard operational mode until the North Vietnamese acquired the SAM missiles. When the SAMs went operational in late July of 1965, the EA-1F became too vulnerable to being shot down by a SAM. For the next three years, the tactic for all ECM missions was to use directional jammers from over the water. It was a necessary trade off until the Navy could acquire jet powered aircraft with ECM capabilities that were less vulnerable to the SAMs.

Plane: EA-1F Skyraider (SPAD)
Buno: 132540
Tale Code: VR
Modex: 703
Call Sign: ROBINSON (AKA Robbie 703)
Squadron: VAW-13 Zappers - Carrier Airborne Early Warning Squadron 13
Aircraft Specs: Radial R3350-26W
Upgraded Skyraider with specialized EMC Radar Jamming Equipment. Also equipped with 20mm cannons for protection.

Description provided by retired CDR James Glendenning.


Records and investigation reports.

Below are various articles, records, eyewitness accounts and case reports including DPAA, DIA, CIA and Joint Chiefs of Staff investigation and meeting notes for his case (0092-1-01). All these records are from historical sources such as the National Archives, Library of Congress, POW network, Aviation Safety Network, Ancestry.com, Malcolm McConnell Collection.


Congressional inquiry.

January 19, 2024, Senator John Fetterman submitted a Congressional Inquiry to secure his full investigation records, hoping new details were added in the mid 1990s resulting from Operation Swamp Ranger that could clear up the discrepancy status of Christian's case.

UPDATE: May 5, 2024, Defense POW/MIAA Accounting Agency (DPAA) released over 400+ pages of investigations records.

PRAVDA Article PRAVDA Article PRAVDA Article


Texas Tech University archives.

February 14, 2024, the research department at Texas Tech University where the Malcolm McConnell Collection is stored, has also agreed to search the records that were gathered from the Vietnamese Government in 1992 during Operation Swamp Ranger. The two articles below are about Operation Swamp Ranger and explain how the CIA and the Joint Chiefs of Staff tried to resolve these cases.

Article 1: TIME magazine 1992 "The Truth at Last"
Article 2: TIME magazine 1995 "Secrets of the Museum"


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Commendations and AwardsRemembering LTJG David Christian and the Crew of VR703