This Day in History: A long overdue reunion between Vietnam War pilots
On this day in 2011, two American pilots find each other. Decades earlier, Wayne Hague had saved Ron Catton from certain capture—maybe even death—in Vietnam. Nevertheless, the two had never met, and they didn’t know each other’s names.
“All this time, it’s been, ‘Gee, I wish I knew who it was [who saved me],’” Catton told a reporter. “Then to have it happen like that. He’s a really nice guy.”
During those months in Vietnam, Hague was a tanker pilot. Meanwhile, Catton served in the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing, along with legendary fighter pilot Colonel Robin Olds.
Catton found himself in a difficult predicament on August 13, 1967. He was the lead plane on a morning mission to cover some F-105 Thunderchiefs as they bombed an area near Hanoi. “The MiGs were stirred up by our recent bridge strikes, so we expected some action,” Olds later wrote.
And that’s exactly what they got.
Just as Catton swooped in to bomb a railroad bridge, rounds from an enemy MiG ripped into his plane. “All of that debris went through the engine and wiped it out,” Catton described. “My fire warning light was on. I jinked to the left, jinked to my right. I looked over my shoulder and there were three MiGs on me.”
Catton went into a vertical climb, then turned and flew straight into the MiGs. He couldn’t quite shake them, but he still joked to Olds: “Hey, Chevy, I’ve got three MiGs cornered at six o’clock!” Olds turned and chased off the MiGs, providing Catton with a temporary reprieve. Catton’s plane was badly damaged, though, and he was losing fuel at a rapid clip. He radioed his intent to bail out over Laos.
Just then a tanker pilot’s voice crackled over the radio: “Negative, Cadillac Lead, Red Anchor 31 here. I’ll come to get you. Give me your coordinates.”
Hague had been listening, and he realized that Catton was in some serious trouble. Bailing out over Laos was a near-certain ticket to the Hanoi Hilton. Hague had strict orders not to take his tanker into enemy territory, but he didn’t care.
“I just went in and got him,” Hague said.
Hague found Catton and prepared to attach a refueling boom. “Understand, I’ve got a fire warning and smoke in the cockpit,” Catton radioed. “You don’t have to take me on.” But Hague would have none of it. “Cadillac lead, get your sorry ass in position for a hookup before I change my mind!”
For more than 200 miles, Catton and Hague traveled together as the refueling boom poured a constant stream of fuel into Catton’s leaking airplane. Amazingly, Catton escaped to friendly territory—but just barely. His left engine failed just as he was landing.
It had been a close call.
In a peculiar twist, the entire incident nearly cost Hague a court-martial. Fortunately, Catton and Olds caught wind of what was happening. “Hell, no sweat,” Olds told Catton. “Put him in for the Silver Star!”
Hague didn’t get a Silver Star. But he didn’t get court-martialed, either.
Through all of these events, the two men never met or got each other’s names. They found each other many years later by chance: Catton was giving a talk at a high school when his tale of a heroic tanker pilot caught the principal’s attention. His wife had heard the same story from the pilot on her medical missionary trip.
Finally, Catton knew the name of the man who’d saved him. On February 6, 2011, he surprised Hague with a phone call. The two met in person just a few days later.
Jeff Jardine, 43 years after rescue, pilots finally meet (Spokesman Review; Mar. 18, 2011)
Larece Galer, Willoughby native meets pilot he saved 43 years ago (The News-Herald; May 19, 2011)
Robin Olds et al., Fighter Pilot: The Memoirs of Legendary Ace Robin Olds (2010)