THOMAS, HARRY EUGENE
REMAINS RETUNRED, IDENTIFIED 10/30/96
NAVY CMDR. HARRY E. THOMAS OF TAFT, CALIF. - LOST AUGUST 13, 1965
NORTH VIETNAM. JOINT FIELD ACTIVITIES IN 1994, 1995 AND 1996 RESULTED IN
THE RECOVERY OF "AIRCRAFT DEBRIS, CREW-REALTED MATERIALS AND
HUMAN REMAINS." DEFENSE POW/MIA WEEKLY UPDATE - OCTOBER 30, 1996
Name: Harry Eugene Thomas
Rank/Branch: O5/US Navy
Unit: Skipper, Attack Squadron 153, USS CORAL SEA
Date of Birth: 13 September 1927
Home City of Record: Taft CA
Date of Loss: 13 August 1965
Country of Loss: North Vietnam
Loss Coordinates: 201458N 1054700E (WH818391)
Status (in 1973): Killed/Body Not Recovered
Other Personnel in Incident: (none missing)
Source: Compiled by Homecoming II Project 15 May 1990 from one or more of the
following: raw data from U.S. Government agency sources, correspondence with
POW/MIA families, published sources, interviews. Updated by the P.O.W.
REMARKS: HEAVY AA - CRASH - CANOPY OBS ON - J
SYNOPSIS: North Vietnam learned the lessons of modern aerial warfare
rapidly. Over the short span of 36 months, Ho Chi Minh, with the help of his
supporters, led the North Vietnamese military from technology-poor and
ground-oriented military to one with one of the world's strongest and most
sophisticated air defense networks.
The motivation was simple. During the 1965-1968 ROLLING THUNDER program,
U.S. aircraft dropped a daily average of 800 tons of bombs, rockets and
missiles on North Vietnam. The Soviet Union and China to a lesser degree,
provided surface-to-air missiles (SAM), anti-aircraft guns, small arms and
jet aircraft almost as fast as the dock workers at Haiphong could unload the
cargo. They also sent an array of technical advisors and food products to
support their communist brethren.
Consequently, North Vietnamese missile sites grew from ground zero in 1965
to estimates three years later of two hundred SAM sites nationwide and some
thirty missile battalions in the Hanoi area alone. Each battalion contained
up to six missile launchers plus accompanying radar, computers and
Surface-to-air missiles, however, were just one element for U.S. pilots to
reckon with. By September 1967 the defense system included some eight
thousand lethal AAA guns firing twenty-five thousand tons of ammunition each
month at American planes, a complex radar system, and computerized control
centers. An elaborate warning system was devised, the more sophisticated
systems keyed by Soviet observation trawlers on duty near American carriers.
These spy ships relayed how many aircraft were leaving the deck, their bomb
loads and side numbers, and it was not too difficult for North Vietnam to
compute where and when the aircraft would arrive and to prepare a proper
welcome. The primitive alarm systems utilized observation towers, whistles,
gongs, drums and triangles to warn of impending attacks.
The rules of engagement (ROE) limited ROLLING THUNDER's damage on the enemy.
It was actually designed only to apply military pressure "for the specific
purpose of halting aggression in South Vietnam," not for inflicting maximum
damage. Unfortunately, U.S. aircrews died while fighting under these less
than ideal conditions as the North Vietnamese became very efficient at
employing their defense network.
The SAMs (Soviet-supplies SA-2 Guideline missiles) consisted of a
thirty-five-foot-high, two-stage, radar-guided rocket topped by a 350-pound
explosive warhead. The missile, with a ceiling of sixty thousand feet, was
fused to go off on contact; by proximity or altitude; or on command from
below. SAMs were typically fired in pairs, and in most cases were lethal if
they exploded within three hundred feet of an aircraft.
The first SAM site was discovered in April 1965, yet U.S. pilots were
forbidden to take immediate defensive action. A second SAM site was spotted
about a year later, and by mid-July, several more sites were photographed in
the area of Hanoi and Haiphong. Defensive strikes were not approved for any
of the sites, primarily because Washington leadership feared killing Soviet
personnel involved in training the North Vietnamese crews. It was not until
the North Vietnamese had shot down a number of U.S. aircraft that U.S. air
forces were permitted to strike back at the sites.
On the night of August 11-12, the first Navy aircraft fell victim to SAMs.
LCDR Francis D. Roberge and LTJG Donald H. Brown of VA 23, flying A4Es from
the deck of the carrier USS MIDWAY, were struck by SAMS while on a road
reconnaissance some sixty miles south of Hanoi. The pilots saw what they
believed were two flares glowing beneath the clouds and coming closer. Too
late, they realized that glowing missile propellant was the source of the
light. Brown's aircraft exploded and crashed, while Roberge's limped back to
the ship with a horribly scorched and peppered belly.
Navy reaction was immediate, but costly. On Black Friday, August 13 1965,
seventy-six low-level "Iron Hand" missions were launched to seek out and
destroy SAM sites. Five aircraft and three pilots were lost to enemy guns,
and seven other planes were damaged, but no SAMs were discovered.
One of the pilots lost on August 13 were Navy CDR Harry E. Thomas, skipper
of the "Blue Tails -- VA 153, an attack squadron flying off the carrier
CORAL SEA. Thomas, a Korean War veteran had been skipper of the squadron
since May. He had a lot of air combat experience, and important to the
squadron, a lot of night experience. He taught the younger officers night
flying, which in Vietnam, proved to be not only highly successful, but also
safer than day strikes. The method used was to fly low at about 100 or 200
feet beneath the flares to find the target and, using low-level, lay-down
ordnance such as snakeyes, cluster bombs or gun pods, to destroy such
targets as enemy truck convoys.
On the August 13 mission, Blue Tail members went on a mass, low-level strike
looking for SAM sites. Thomas' aircraft flew into a volley of flak and was
hit by heavy anti-aircraft fire and crashed. Observers noted that the canopy
was still intact on the aircraft, thus precluding any chance that Thomas
survived. He was listed Killed in Action, Body Not Recovered.
SAM evasion tactics were still being devised. The current tactic was to fly
in low, below two thousand feet because thei North Vietnamese could not get
the radar guidance working at that altitude. But it also put a pilot right
down into the fire zone of small arms and even foreign objects thrown by
hand that the aircraft could conceivably ingest and go down from. Thomas had
not believed the tactic of flying en masse at low levels was smart, but was
not given the normal tactical flexibility to change it. The Navy never used
this particular tactic again. They learned that, even at high speed, you
couldn't beat massed automatic weapons. Eventually, the military moved from
medium alititude to 3,000 to 5,000 feet and had more success dealing with
Perhaps the greatest tragedy was that VA153's aircraft was fitted with the
APR-23 Redhead, a device that would have been helpful in locating SAM sites,
had the squadron been trained to use them. Thomas and CDR David Leue, who
replaced him as squadron skipper, tried to generate interest in using this
device rather than sending in a mass, low-level group looking for SAMS.
Their efforts were futile. Following Thomas' death, however, tactics were
changed, based on the material and information available at the time.
The second pilot lost on Black Friday was Air Force Captain Fredric M.
Mellor. Mellor was the pilot of an RF101C "Voodoo" tactical reconnaissance
aircraft. During his mission, Mellor's aircraft was hit by enemy fire and
crashed. Mellor radioed that he had successfully ejected and was on the
ground without serious injury. He was advised to avoid further radio contact
until the arrival of rescue forces. When the rescue helicopter approached
the area and attempted to make radio contact with Mellor, there was no
reply. Subsequent search operations were negative. Mellor had disappeared.
In U.S. Government records dated 1970-1973, Mellor's last known location was
listed in Son La Province, North Vietnam, about 25 miles due west of the
city of Hoa Binh. Defense Department records of 25 July 1980 show he
disappeared about 25 miles east-northeast of that location, or about 100
miles due west of Hanoi on the tri-province borders of Son La, Nghia Lo and
The third pilot shot down on Black Friday was U.S. Navy LT Gene R. Gollahon
F8D pilot. Gollahon's aircraft was hit by enemy fire about 10 miles west of
the city of Phat Diem in Thanh Hoa Province, North Vietnam. The aircraft
crashed and exploded. No parachute was noted and no emergency radio beeper
signals were heard. Little hope was held out for Gollahon's survival and he
was declared Killed/Body Not Recovered.
Of the four pilots lost in the beginning days of ROLLING THUNDER, three were
declared dead. On August 14, 1985, twenty years and two days after he was
shot down, the Vietnamese "discovered" the remains of Donald H. Brown, Jr.
and returned them to U.S. control. Of the four, only Fredric Mellor was
declared Missing in Action. Public perception of the word "MIA" is ashes on
an isolated mountainside, or someone lost at the bottom of the sea. Mellor
was alive and well on the ground. There is every reason to believe he was
captured, or that the North Vietnamese know very well what happened to him
on that day. Yet, the Vietnamese deny knowledge of him, and the U.S. has not
found a way to bring him home -- dead or alive.
Between 1965 and 1968, the Navy's Seventh Fleet lost 382 planes over
Southeast Asia, of which fifty-eight fell victim to SAMs and the rest to AAA
and small arms fire.
Fredric M. Mellor was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel during the
period he was maintained missing.
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