written by Bob Bukk
VBC member Bob Bukk recalls Medal of Honor recipient Michael J. Estocin, Naval Aviator who went missing in Vietnam in 1967.
One day, I asked a fellow golfer about his hat and jacket, both of which blazed with the USS Estocin’s name and insignia.
“My brother was shot down in North Vietnam and won the Congressional Medal of Honor, so the Navy named a ship after him,” snapped the man in response.
His brother, Michael John Estocin, was born on April 27, 1931, and grew up in Turtle Creek, Pennsylvania. After graduating from Slippery Rock State Teachers College in 1954, he entered the Naval Aviation Cadet Program and received his commission a year later.
In 1967 Estocin reached the rank of lieutenant commander and was assigned to the world-famous Golden Dragons attack squadron 192, flying the A-4 Skyhawk off the Carrier USS Ticonderoga (CV-14) off the coast of North Vietnam.
Lieutenant Commander Estocin was one of six Shrike (Supersonic All-Weather Air-To-Surface Missile, although a Shrike is also a predatory bird) pilots in his squadron. Shrike was considered by many to be the most challenging duty during the Vietnam war. The Shrike pilots’ purpose was to fly several minutes ahead of the main strike force drawing fire from surface-to-air missile batteries (SAM).
Once identified by ground radar, the Shrike pilot would launch anti-radar missiles at the target, destroy the launchers, or force the enemy to turn off the radar. This dangerous tactic allowed the main strike force to access targets without the threat of SAM launches.
On April 20, 1967, Attack Squadron 192 took off from the Ticonderoga on a bombing mission over Haiphong. LTCDR Estocin flew his A-4 Skyhawk in support. During the mission, he knocked out three enemy SAM sites while providing warnings of missile threats to leaders of the strike group.
Although his Skyhawk incurred severe damage from an exploding missile strike under heavy anti-aircraft fire, he continued relentlessly attacking additional targets in the area.
Finally, with his fuel tanks nearly dry, he returned to the carrier after refueling inflight for over 100 miles, losing more fuel than he was taking on. Three miles off the Ticonderoga and with enough fuel in the tanks for one approach, he disengaged from the tanker and “executed a precise approach to a fiery arrested landing.” Firefighters extinguished the flames as Estocin walked away from the wreck without looking back.
Nearly a week later and the day before his 36th birthday, LTCDR Estocin left sick bay and volunteered again to serve in the role of Shrike, leading a successful bombing mission that eliminated two of Haiphong’s thermal power stations.
However, as they were about to return to the carrier, a SAM launched, and a missile explosion rocked Estocin’s Skyhawk, sending it into a barrel role. Once gaining control, he sent the burning craft into a thirty-degree dive.
Wingman John Nichols immediately called in rescue helicopters. He then maneuvered his Crusader into a position to see into the cockpit of the stricken plane. LTCDR Estocin was bent slightly forward but not moving. Attempts to establish radio contact failed.
While still under fire, Nichols followed the stricken Skyhawk. At 600 feet, he watched as Estocin’s plane launched its remaining Shrikes before the aircraft impacted the ground. After not seeing an opened parachute, Nichols circled the area, called off the rescue, and returned to the Ticonderoga.
Nichols was sure that Estocin died in the crash, but intelligence gathered from Hanoi led U.S. officials to believe that the downed pilot was captured and imprisoned. As a result, he was declared missing in action.
Because of the MIA designation, the Estocin family did not give up hope and began sending letters and packages to Hanoi.
News sources tell of one peculiar occurrence when a package sent by Estocin’s sister returned from Hanoi in August of 1972. The opened box contained a hand-sewn bootie with two letter “Ms” on the outside – the first initials of Commander Estocin and his wife, Marie. Inside were three hearts representing their children. The Navy had no explanation for this, but this interpretation of proof of life heartened the family.
In 1973, the government of Vietnam released nearly 600 POWs. LTCD Estocin was not among them.
Some returning prisoners had heard his name in their camps, while others claimed he was still alive. Hanoi denies any knowledge of Michael Estocin. He remains among the over 1,500 Americans still unaccounted for from the Vietnam war.
Despite these claims, the Estocin family never gave up hope, doggedly continuing their quest for answers.
Twice Marie Estocin attended the Paris Peace talks wanting information. Her pleas remained unanswered.
In 1976, Estocin’s parents declared him a write-in candidate for President on the Pennsylvania primary ballot to bring attention to their son and other MIAs.
In November that same year, the Navy changed Michael Estocin’s MIA status to KIA, Killed in Action.
For his actions during the two missions over Haiphong in 1967, he received a promotion to Captain in absentia.
For his gallantry on April 20 and 26, 1967, President Jimmy Carter, a fellow Navy veteran, posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor to Captain Estocin on February 27, 1978.
On January 10, 1981, the Navy commissioned an Oliver Hazzard Perry Class guided-missile frigate – the USS Estocin (FFG-15). Appropriately, her motto reads “Courage, Honor, Tenacity.”
The USS Estocin was decommissioned and stricken from the U.S. Navy’s rolls on April 3, 2003. She was transferred to the Turkish Navy sailing as that nation’s TCG Göksu (F 497) and is still in active service as part of the U.S. Security Assistance Program.
As time passed, I lost touch with that fellow golfer, Michael’s brother, John Estocin. John had retired and moved down south to a warmer clime.
Marie Estocin never remarried. In a 2006 article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, she recalled her husband with pride and pain.
“He loved to fly,” she explained. “I had no competition, not another woman, just an airplane, and that I could handle.”
As with all Gold Star Wives, Mothers, and Families, Marie Estocin deserves her own recognition for her devotion and sacrifice.
Excerpt from Bob Bukk’s work-in-progress, “Encounters: The people I’ve met along the way.”