GERSTEL, DONALD ARTHUR
Name: Donald Arthur Gerstel Rank/Branch: O4/US Navy Unit: Attack Squadron 93, USS MIDWAY Date of Birth: 23 June 1938 (Harvey IL) Home City of Record: Matteson IL Date of Loss: 08 September 1972 Country of Loss: North Vietnam Loss Coordinates: 184800N 1055300E (WF932788) Status (in 1973): Missing in Action Category: 2 Aircraft/Vehicle/Ground: A7B Refno: 1920 Other Personnel in Incident: (none missing)
Source: Compiled by Homecoming II Project with the assistance of one or more of the following: raw data from U.S. Government agency sources, correspondence with POW/MIA families, published sources, interviews: 15 March 1990. Updated by the P.O.W. NETWORK 1998.
SYNOPSIS: The Vought A7 Corsair II was a single-seat attack jet utilized by both the Navy and Air Force in Vietnam. The aircraft was designed to meet the Navy's need for a subsonic attack plane able to carry a greater load of non-nuclear weapons that the A4 Skyhawk. The aircraft's unique design completely freed the wingspace for bomb loading; the Pratt and Whitney jet engine was beneath the fuselage of the aircraft. The Corsair was used primarily for close air support and interdiction, although it was also used for reconnaissance. A Corsair is credited with flying the last official combat mission in the war - bombing a target in Cambodia on 15 August 1973.
Major Donald A. Gerstel was the pilot of an A7B Corsair assigned to Attack Squadron 93 on board the aircraft carrier, USS MIDWAY. On September 8, 1972, Gerstel launched as the leader of a section of aircraft assigned a surface reconnaissance mission which would take him over North Vietnam. The surveillance mission maintained watch over the Chinese merchant shops anchored off the coast of North Vietnam and Gerstel's flight was assigned to an anchorage adjacent to the small island of Hon Nieu.
The flight rendezvoused without incident and proceeded toward the anchorage at an altitude of 6,OOO feet. They switched their radios to the controlling ships frequency. Gerstel's transponder was not received by the carrier's strike controller. As a result of this, the wingman's transponder was used to monitor the flight. Nearing the anchorage, the flight entered instrument flight conditions and Gerstel detached his wingman and instructed him to climb above the base altitude and orbit while he commenced a descent to determine the bases of the clouds. The section was in an area of severe turbulence and lightning. Shortly after the separation Gerstel reported that he had been struck by lightning. When his wingman asked if he was alright, he replied: "Yes, just a lot of sparks". The wingman then asked his position and he reported that he was 3O miles west southwest of the control ship. The weather prevented the control ship from obtaining a radar return from Gerstel's aircraft. Since Gerstel's transponder was inoperative, it was impossible for the control ship to maintain him under positive control. Later Gerstel reported his location as midway between the islands of Hon Nieu and Hon Matt. Gerstel's loss coordinates last place him in the Gulf of Tonkin about 18 miles east of the city of Phu Dien Chau in Nghe An Province. After that report there were no further contact, visual, radio or radar was made with him. Search efforts was conducted with negative results. Lt.Cdr. Gerstel was classified Missing in Action.
The Defense Intelligence Agency further expanded Gerstel's classification to include an enemy knowledge ranking of 2. Category 2 indicates "suspect knowledge" and includes personnel who may have been involved in loss incidents with individuals reported in Category 1 (confirmed knowledge), or who were lost in areas or under conditions that they may reasonably be expected to be known by the enemy; who were connected with an incident which was discussed but not identified by names in enemy news media; or identified (by elimination, but not 100% positively) through analysis of all-source intelligence.
When 591 Americans were released from prison camps in the spring of 1973, Gerstel was not among them. Military officials later expressed their horror that "hundreds" who had been believed captured were not released. The Vietnamese denied any knowledge of these men, including Donald A. Gerstel.
Since American involvement in Vietnam ended in 1975, nearly 10,000 reports relating to Americans missing, prisoner, or otherwise unaccounted for in Indochina have been received by the U.S. Government. Many officials, having examined this largely classified information, have reluctantly concluded that many Americans are still alive today, held captive by our long-ago enemy.
Whether Gerstel survived the over-water crash of his aircraft to be captured by the multitude of enemy fishing and military vessels often found along the coastline is certain not known. It is not known if he might be among those thought to be still alive today. What is certain, however, is that as long as even one American remains alive, held against his will, we owe him our very best efforts to bring him to freedom.