By the summer of 1966, Operation Rolling Thunder, the American air campaign against North Vietnam, was in full swing, and American bombers and fighter bombers were engaging the most sophisticated air defense network produced by the Communist Bloc. Radar controlled SA-2 and AAA guns took a heavy toll on the B-52 bomber and the F-105 fighter/bombers (the F-105 could carry more bomb tonnage than a WWII era B-17). In the fall of 1966, the US Air Force introduced new radar jamming pods that were so effective that they reduced the SAM threat to zero. But there weren’t enough of them to go around, so the pod less F-4 Phantoms of the fighter escort were kept out of SAM range to protect them.
The North Vietnamese air force pounced. Guided by ground stations, the F-4’s nemesis, the delta winged MiG-21 Fishbed, made short work of the heavily laden F-105s. They effectively “waged guerrilla war” on the American formations: “one pass and haul ass” before the F-105s could dump their bombs and engage. They always engaged within the SAM ring so no F-4s were ever around. American losses spiked, and the fighter pilots of F-4’s were catching hell for not protecting the bombers, even though they were kept out of the fight by a well-meaning risk assessment.
Enter Col Robin Olds, a natural leader and an old fashioned “fighting commander” who wasn’t afraid to fly missions with his men. He was a former P-51 pilot with a plethora of Luftwaffe kills, and he scorned his superiors and peers who just came to Vietnam to “check that career box”, and sit behind a desk in Thailand. He wasn’t going to let his charges get shot down just because someone said it wasn’t safe. His magnificent mustache would not allow it.
Around New Year’s, Col Olds and his staff planned Operation Bolo. Air Force intelligence placed about 25 of the modern MiG-21s in Vietnam (there were only 18), if he could get them up and engage them, he could change the entire air war in South East Asia. He planned for his fighters to be “Wolves in sheep’s clothing” (hence the name of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing, the Wolfpack). He would electronically disguise his air to air armed F-4s as bomb fitted F-105s. Furthermore, they operated on known F-105 frequencies, and used bomber call signs to deceive the North Vietnamese ground controllers. (The Black Sheep squadron is WWII did the same thing in the Solomon’s in 1943.) The MiGs took the bait.
On 7 January 1967, 12 MiG-21s screamed in to engage the “bombers”, only to meet a wall of Sidewinder missiles. Seven were shot down. 1/3 of the total MiG-21 force in Vietnam was destroyed in one afternoon. Olds tried again a few days later, not expecting much. But the North Vietnamese blamed the ground controllers. Then, like all good Communists, they thought if they just did the same thing and other people tried harder it would work out. Olds’ men shot down another four. The MiG-21s wouldn’t be back in the air for another ten weeks.