Authors’ Note: Soon after publishing this piece I heard from Ken Lee, the Army Mohawk pilot. He confirmed the timing in the popular narratives is incorrect. The engagement occurred in November of 1967. I’m working with him on corrections now and will have the definitive story soon. Stay tuned…
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.
It happened during February of 1968. Two armed (at that time) OV-1A Mohawks were flying above South Vietnam’s A Shau valley, located just south of the DMZ and close to the Laotian border. Just a little less than two years before, 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, assigned to the 131st Aviation Company, to use their infrared (IR) and other sensors to try and get the gouge on enemy activity in the area.
Flying just a couple of thousand feet above the valley floor with low ceiling and heavy clouds overhead the flight leader, Captain Ken Lee, 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 everything he did.
Lee fired all of his 38 rockets at the MiG in two 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 all over 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 unsurprised Lee found quite a few 23 millimeter holes in his aircraft from the MiG. 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. Until later.
Captain Lee found himself at Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base , home of the famous 8th Tactical Fighter Wing (TFW) and commanded by none other than Colonel Robin Olds. Olds told Lee that he had “heard rumors” about an Army OV-1 Mohawk pilot who had shot down a MiG. Lee volunteered that he was the pilot who had scored the kill and described the engagement in detail. Olds did not confirm or deny any knowledge of the incident or validate Lee’s claim. Until Later.
Supposedly it wasn’t until Lee made a subsequent stop at Ubon that Olds and his Vice Wing Commander, Colonel Chappie James, “ordered” Lee to accompany them to the 8th TFW Officers Club, where Lee was informed that he had indeed shot down the MiG- confirmed via somewhat shadowy and clandestine methods Olds and James would not share with Lee. Though Lee never did receive official credit for his victory, he did get to bend an arm with a couple of fairly famous Air Force MiG killers. Or did he?
Olds arrived at Ubon in September of 1966. He relinquished command of the 8th TFW to Colonel Robert V. Spencer on September 23rd 1967. By 1968 he had shed his famous bulletproof mustache and become was the Commandant of Cadets at the Air Force Academy. Colonel James was at Eglin AFB by December of 1967 as Vice Commander of the 33rd TFW. So unless Lee’s MiG-17 engagement happened much earlier in the war than most of the narratives indicate the timing doesn’t quite work out, does it? Certainly not if it happened in 1968. Still a good yarn though.