Authors’ Note: Soon after originally publishing a previous piece about the Mohawk vs MiG engagement I was able to get in touch with Army Mohawk pilot Ken Lee. I worked with him to bring the details of his Vietnam experiences to light. This expanded version of the original story includes Ken’s perspective. It has been reviewed and approved by Ken Lee.
The Grumman OV-1 Mohawk was developed for use as a battlefield surveillance, reconnaissance, and light strike aircraft beginning in 1956. The aircraft was first flown in 1959 and entered service with the US Army in 1960. Tangling with North Vietnamese MiGs was probably the last thing the designers ever thought the Mohawk be required to do, but tangle with a MiG one did, and this is the story.
The US Army flew all kinds of aircraft in Vietnam. From light observation aircraft to transports and of course thousands of helicopters, the Army flew just about everywhere the Air Force, Navy, and Marines did and lots of places they couldn’t. Despite the aerial victories scored by the other armed services, the Army just didn’t get many opportunities to mix it up with MiGs. But an OV-1 Mohawk somehow achieved the only U.S. Army air-to-air victory during the Vietnam War.
Some background: Ken Lee began flying Mohawks with the Army in early 1964 and completed type transition training during September of 1964. Ken’s first tour in Vietnam began during November of 1964. During that tour he flew with the 23rd Special Warfare Aviation Detachment (SWAD) and with the 73rd Surveillance Aviation Company (SAC) callsign Uptight. Ken returned home to CONUS at the end of his first tour during November of 1965.
27 year old Ken Lee began his second tour flying Mohawks in August of 1967. He was assigned to the 131st Aviation Company Nighthawks callsign Spud out of Phu Bai Air Base. Ken (personal callsign Martini) and his fellow pilots flew a mix of OV-1A (visual and photo recon), OV-1B (side looking airborne radar [SLAR]), and OV-1C (Infrared [IR]) Mohawk variants. Their missions during this tour were focused on target acquisition in Laos and southern North Vietnam.
Ken had been wounded before his encounter with the MiG. As he tells it, “I was wounded the first of October 1967 at the border between South Vietnam and Laos. A .51 caliber round came through the side skin of the aircraft and went through my flak jacket, damaged my .45 caliber side arm, through my survival radio and survival kit. I was next in the bullet’s path. I was not able to fly again for three weeks and the MiG incident came on about the second mission I flew after I began flying again.”
Ken and another Mohawk pilot were transiting to Laos above South Vietnam’s A Shau valley, located just south of the DMZ and close to the Laotian border. Air Force Major Bernie Fisher flew a heroic rescue mission in that valley, landing under heavy fire to pick up a downed pilot. A Shau was still and would remain a hotbed of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong activity. It was up to the two Mohawks, to use their infrared (IR) and other sensors to try and get the gouge on enemy activity west of the area.
Flying just a couple of thousand feet above the valley floor with low ceiling and heavy clouds overhead, Captain Ken Lee’s Mohawk was suddenly “bounced” by a North Vietnamese MiG-17 Fresco jet fighter. The MiG scored hits on Lee’s empennage and rear fuselage but overshot the relatively slow Mohawks. As the MiG pilot turned to engage the Mohawks again he got in front of the two 19 shot M159 rocket pods with 2.75 inch unguided rockets and two XM14 .50 caliber gun pods mounted on Lee’s underwing racks. Lee realized his best chance to stay alive was to fire everything at the MiG while it was in front of him, and fire (almost) everything he did.
As Ken Lee tells it, “When I felt the hits on the aircraft I told my wingman to break south as there was no point in both of us getting shot down. I was still a bit jumpy in that area- I didn’t want another .51 caliber round in my side, so I started a right turn to put some distance between me and the AAA batteries in the valley. I looked out the right side of the airplane to clear my turn and then just as I began the turn the MiG flew past me. I had only 170 knots of airspeed as we were heavy.”
Ken continues, “At first I thought the MiG might have been an Aussie F-86 (RAAF CA-27 Sabres were based out of Ubon in those days- editor) but then I saw the red star on his tail. When he passed me he just about lined himself up. He just happened to be right on my pipper, so I have to say there was no great skill involved in leading him or anything. I just started shooting.”
While his right-seater deposited the contents of his stomach in his helmet bag, Lee fired most of his 38 rockets at the MiG in several four-shot salvos, believing he hit it with four of them. He also claimed to have hit the Fresco with approximately 100 rounds of .50 caliber gunfire, observing tracer fire light up the MiG’s fuselage. After the attack the two aircraft lost sight of each other in a cloud bank but by then the MiG was well ablaze and although Lee did not see the stricken MiG impact the ground he was confident that it had gone in, having last seen the Fresco entering a valley he knew was boxed in by the weather.
When the two Mohawks returned to Phu Bai Air Base, an expectant Captain Lee found quite a few 23 millimeter holes in his aircraft from the MiG. He had a few rockets and a few .50 cal rounds left. Because the Army wanted to avoid any issues the Air Force might have had with a Mohawk or any other Army aircraft shooting down a MiG, Lee and his wingman were ordered to keep his victory quiet. In truth he didn’t really know for certain he had shot the MiG down. Either way Ken never received either credit for the MiG or any kind of recognition- from the Army anyway.
Ken says the MiG attack on his section wasn’t entirely unique. He recalls, “This incident was not the only time I had been attacked from above and not below. I had .51 cal round holes in the aircraft I was flying on two other occasions. They were after the MIG incident and there was no explanation as to how they got there as neither did my wingman see anything nor did I. Colonel Olds did tell me that the North Vietnamese had opened an airfield just north of the DMZ so they could make shock runs into our operating area.”
Ken Lee had previously flown to Ubon Air Force Base in Thailand several times to meet with Colonel Robin Olds, the famous mustachioed triple-ace wing commander of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing (TFW) Wolfpack and his equally famous vice commander Colonel Daniel “Chappie” James. Both of these charismatic leaders were keenly interested in any Laotian targets identified by Lee and his fellow Mohawk pilots. As Ken tells it, “I actually knew both of them. Colonel Olds would meet me on the flight line and pick me, and only me, up and take me up to the debrief room. He would have a case of Bud iced down and I would give him targets that I had been working on in Laos the week before. So he was not a stranger. He was a very warm and personable man. I respected him and he knew it. I was not afraid to just sit and talk to him.”
Ken continues, “When I met him at the club the next time I went to Ubon, he and Col James put me in the center of a line for a MiG Sweep. Drinks and food, on the house. The MiG Sweep was a real thrill. I still think of them both. You would never know that he was a genuine hero. He did not show any weakness in his character and did not allow you to show any weakness either. He brought out your strengths in a way that made you feel you had done it yourself. He was a National hero and treated me, an Army captain, as an equal. I never saw them acting like they were as beat down from flying missions as we were. He did not seem to be too taxed at the time. Always relaxed and no pressure.”
Olds and James informed Ken that the MiG kill was confirmed at the MiG Sweep ceremony. But all Ken got from the Army was, “don’t talk about it, even if asked.” Ken Lee returned from his second tour in Vietnam in September of 1968. Today Ken Lee is 78 years old and recovering from heart bypass surgery. He says many accounts of his MiG engagement have been discounted as fantastic. Ken also said, “It has been 51 years since these things happened and the memory of exact dates and tail numbers, serial numbers seem to have passed with time. I do not remember the name of the right seat observer, I just remember him vomiting in his helmet bag when he saw the MIG going by. Ruined his nice new camera and oxygen mask.”
Ken and his brave brothers did a tough, dangerous, and in the end futile job that seldom gets the sort of recognition it should. Between June and December 1966, 131st Aviation Company OV-1As flew 1,228 sorties, OV-1Bs flew 2,134 sorties, and OV-1Cs flew 520 sorties totaling 3882 sorties and 5,638 hours of combat time. In 1967 the Nighthawks flew 11,947 combat hours. Lost were 13 crew members KIA or MIA and 10 crew members wounded. Six OV-1As, 2 OV-1Bs , and 2 OV-1Cs were lost. Here’s a video of the 131st Nighthawks in action uploaded to YouTube by Theron Clark.