SPONEYBARGER, ROBERT DAVID Name: Robert David Sponeybarger Rank/Branch: O3/US Air Force, pilot Unit: 429th TFS Date of Birth: Home City of Record: Emmaus PA Date of Loss: 22 December 1972 Country of Loss: North Vietnam Loss Coordinates: 205800N 1052600E (VJ850640) Status (in 1973): Released POW Category: Acft/Vehicle/Ground: F111A Other Personnel In Incident: William W. Wilson (released POW) Source: Compiled by Homecoming II Project 15 October 1990 from one or more of the following: raw data from U.S. Government agency sources, correspondence with POW/MIA families, published sources including "Linebacker" by Karl J. Eschmann. Updated by the P.O.W. NETWORK. REMARKS: 730329 RELSD BY DRV SYNOPSIS: The F111 was first used in Southeast Asia in March 1968 during Operation Combat Lancer and flew nearly 3,000 missions during the war despite frequent periods of grounding. From 1968 to 1973, the F111 was grounded several months because of excess losses of aircraft. By 1969, there had been 15 F111's downed by malfunction or enemy fire. The major malfunctions involved engine problems and problems with the terrain following radar (TFR) which reads the terrain ahead and flies over any obstructions. Eight of the F111's downed during the war were flown by crews that were captured or declared missing. The first was one of two F111's downed during Operation Combat Lancer, during which the F111 crews conducted night and all-weather attacks against targets in North Vietnam. On March 28, the F111A flown by Maj. Henry E. MacCann and Capt. Dennis L. Graham was downed near the airfield at Phu Xa, about 5 miles northwest of the city of Dong Hoi in Quang Binh Province, North Vietnam. Both MacCann and Graham were declared Missing in Action. Graham had been a graduate of Texas A & M in 1963. The crew of the second F111 downed during March 1968 was recovered. On April 22, 1968 at about 7:30 p.m., Navy LCdr. David L. Cooley and Air Force LtCol. Edwin D. Palmgren departed the 428th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Ubon Air Base, Thailand to fly an attack mission against the Mi Le Highway Ferry over Dai Giang along Route 101. They were to pass over very heavily defended areas of Laos at rather low altitude. Although searches continued for four days, no wreckage was ever found. The loss coordinates are located near Quang Bien, in Laos, although the two men are listed as Missing in Action in North Vietnam. As a result of the loss of the Cooley/Palmgren F111A, the Air Force suspended use of the aircraft for a limited period to investigate the cause of the losses and make any necessary modifications. After the aircraft returned to the air, the crashes resumed. When the 15th F111 went down in late 1969 because of mechanical failure, all F111's were grounded and the plane did not return to Vietnam service for several months. In September 1972 F111As were returned to Southeast Asia. On September 29, 1972, the F111A flown by Maj. William C. Coltman and commanded by 1Lt. Robert A. Brett, Jr. went down in North Vietnam on the Red River about 10 miles southwest of the city of Yen Bai. Inexplicably, the National League of Families published a list in 1974 that indicated that Robert A. Brett had survived the downing of his aircraft, and that the loss location was in Laos, not North Vietnam. Both men remain Missing in Action. On October 17, 1972, Capt. James A. Hockridge and 1Lt. Allen U. Graham were flying an F111A near the city of Cho Moi in Bac Thai Province, North Vietnam, when their aircraft went down. Both men were listed as Missing in Action, until their remains were returned September 30, 1977. On November 7, 1972, Maj. Robert M. Brown and Maj. Robert D. Morrissey flew an F111A on a mission over North Vietnam. Morrissey, on his second tour of Vietnam, was a 20 year veteran of the Air Force. The aircraft was first reported lost over North Vietnam, but loss coordinates released later indicated that the aircraft was lost in Khammouane Province, Laos near the city of Ban Phaphilang. Both Brown and Morrissey remain missing. On November 21, 1972, the F111A flown by Capt. Ronald D. Stafford and Capt. Charles J. Caffarelli went down about halfway between Hue and Da Nang in South Vietnam. Both the pilot and backseater were thought to have died in the crash into the South China Sea, but no remains were ever found. On December 18, 1972, LtCol. Ronald J. Ward and Maj. James R. McElvain were flying an F111 on a combat mission over North Vietnam when their aircraft was forced to ditch in the Gulf of Tonkin near the coastline at Hoanh Dong. It was suspected that these two airmen may have ejected. They remain Missing in Action. The last missing F111A team to be shot down was Capt. Robert D. Sponeybarger and 1Lt. William W. Wilson. Sponeybarger and Wilson were flying a multi-plane strike against ten targets in the Hanoi area, including airfields, transshipment points, RADCOM, and port facilities. During the attack on the Hanoi port facility at 2138 hours, after pickling off the twelve 500-pound bombs and scoring direct hits on the port facility, Jackel 33, piloted by Capt. Sponeybarger with his Weapons Systems Officer Capt. Bill Wilson, was hit by enemy fire. The crew had to shut down the right engine as they attempted to leave the area. They had been flying a typical F111 tactical mission when they were hit - flying at supersonic speed only a few hundred feet altitude. At a point fifty-three miles west of Hanoi, they ejected. On the third day after the ejection, Capt. Sponeybarger was captured by NVN Army troops searching for the crew members. The next day an intensive SAR effort attempted to recover Capt. Wilson. As the HH53 approached his position, a .50 caliber raked the chopper, shot off the refueling probe, wounded the copilot, and caused numerous fuel leaks. Despite this, the helo crew continued to hover for a pickup. Unfortunately, Capt. Wilson lost his balance while reaching for the penetrator device and rolled down a hill. The HH53 could stay no longer, since North Vietnamese soldiers were getting very close to the chopper. Extensively damaged, the HH53 barely made it to a mountaintop in Laos where they were rescued under enemy fire by a backup Jolly Green. For two more days, Capt. Wilson successfully evaded the enemy search parties, but was finally captured after Christmas while trying to reach food and water dropped by orbiting A7s. In 1973, Sponeybarger and Wilson were released by the North Vietnamese, along with 589 other American prisoners of war. Their story revealed another possibility as to why so many F111's had been lost. Air Force officials had suspected mechanical problems, but really had no idea why the planes were lost because they fly singly and out of radio contact. Capt. Sponeybarger and 1Lt. Wilson had ruled out mechanical problems. "It seems logical that we were hit by small arms," Wilson said, "By what you would classify as a 'Golden BB' - just a lucky shot." Sponeybarger added that small arms at low level were the most feared weapons by F111 pilots. The SAM-25 used in North Vietnam was ineffective at the low altitudes flown by the F111, and anti-aircraft cannot sweep the sky fast enough to keep up with the aircraft. That a 91,000 pound aircraft flying at supersonic speeds could be knocked out of the air by an ordinary bullet from a hand-held rifle or machine gun is a David and Goliath-type story the Vietnamese must love to tell and retell. As reports continue to be received by the U.S.Government build a strong case for belief that hundreds of these missing Americans are still alive and in captivity, one must wonder if their retention provides yet another David and Goliath story for Vietnamese propaganda. The F111 missions were hazardous and the pilots who flew them brave and skilled. Fourteen Americans remain missing from F111 aircraft downed in Southeast Asia. If any of them are among those said to be still missing, what must they be thinking of us? Robert Mack Brown was appointed to the United States Air Force Academy in 1963. SOURCE: WE CAME HOME copyright 1977 Captain and Mrs. Frederic A Wyatt (USNR Ret), Barbara Powers Wyatt, Editor P.O.W. Publications, 10250 Moorpark St., Toluca Lake, CA 91602 Text is reproduced as found in the original publication (including date and spelling errors). UPDATE - 09/95 by the P.O.W. NETWORK, Skidmore, MO ROBERT D. SPONEYBARGER Captain - United States Air Force Shot Down: December 22, 1972 Released: March 29, 1973 I am Robert David Sponeybarger, Captain USAF (191 32 2993). I was born July 8, 1940, in a small town in eastern Pennsylvania, Emmaus. I attended school there and went on to Penn State, receiving a B.A. in Journalism. I joined the Air Force upon graduation in 1962 and was commissioned in the Officer Training School. I Flew the F-111 for 4 years prior to deploying to Thailand in 1972. While flying a low level, night bombing mission near Hanoi, I was shot down and safely ejected into the mountains west of the city on December 22, 1972. Christmas Eve I was captured and taken to the "Hanoi Hilton" where I was kept in isolation until the peace agreement was signed. The first week of February, 1973, my copilot, Lt. Bill Wilson, and I moved to the "Zoo" and lived there with seven other POW's until we were released March 29, 1973. I spent my days in solitary praying, exercising, and, of course, just thinking or day dreaming. We were given little or no news of any kind so jumped at the least little hints or so-called "straws." I know my faith in God, my family, and my country gave me the strength to carry on when the situation demanded. My faith actually grew rather than waning when under the attack of criticism. My stay was short but I prepared myself from the first to last for the duration no matter its length. I was only completely aware of what it really means to be a citizen of this country after I was locked inside a Vietnamese prison. Oh, how precious freedom becomes when it is gone!