We talk with those who flew F-4 Phantom II fighters during the Vietnam War.
An iconic airplane of the Cold War the F-4 Phantom II was a two-seat, twin-engine, all-weather, supersonic built for the Navy, adopted by the Marine Corps, and modified for the Air Force. The F-4 came online in the late 1950s first as a Navy interceptor designed to protect carrier groups. The second seat allowed for a full-time Weapons Officer to handle the complex radar system. Despite achieving Mach 2.2, the F-4 could carry three times the payload of the WWII B-17, including both missiles and bombs.
F-4 pilot and Weapons Officer Dan Petkunas flew 222 combat missions in Vietnam, culminating in the Christmas Bombings of 1972.
If fighter pilots and crew members have nine lives, Dan Petkunas expended at least seven of them during his combat tour. In 1972, Dan was assigned to the 13th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Udorn Royal Thai Air Base in Thailand and began flying bombing runs and missions to protect other aircraft, including B-52 bombers, A-7s, F-105s, and additional F-4s.
As a Weapons System Officer, Petkunas controlled the F-4’s back seat, working in tandem with the pilot. Close calls were common, especially when flying low among the ridges to avoid enemy radar and missiles. On July 30, 1972, during an escort mission over Hanoi, his plane ran out of fuel over the Gulf of Tonkin on the return, forcing him to eject into the darkness.
Remarkably, he and his pilot were rescued by a U.S. Marine helicopter just 30 minutes later.
Dan came back from his tour of duty with the Distinguished Flying Cross, other medals and devices, and, most important, a bride, Tem Nuankathok. This year they will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary.