WILSON, WILLIAM WALLACE
Name: William Wallace Wilson
Rank/Branch: O2/US Air Force
Unit: 429th TFS
Date of Birth:
Home City of Record: Conrad IA
Date of Loss: 22 December 1972
Country of Loss: North Vietnam
Loss Coordinates: 205800N 1052600E (VJ850640)
Status (in 1973): Released POW
Other Personnel In Incident: Robert D. Sponeybarger (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. 2020
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
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
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
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
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?
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