Flying an A-4 Skyhawk in Vietnam – Col. Tom D’Andrea was in VMF-211

There weren’t suppose to be any enemy surface-to-air missiles in South Vietnam, but they were there. Maj. Tom D’Andrea, executive officer of Marine Attack Squadron 211, got an up close and personal look at the telephone pole-size missiles one day in 1967 while flying his A-4 Skyhawk fighter-bomber on a mission.

“We had a couple of reports of SAM missiles being shot at us in South Vietnam, but nobody believed it,” the 74-year-old Punta Gorda, Fla. residents said. “How could they get those big rockets into South Vietnam?

“I was leading a flight of three or four A-4s and a SAM came up where we didn’t expect it. When that happens and you’re carrying a bomb load you’re limited in speed and your maneuverability isn’t good,” D’Andrea explained. “As the SAM comes up toward you, you turn directly into it. When you think you’re close enough you split off and turn under it. The missile can’t turn that sharply and it misses you.”

The retired Marine Corps colonel said SAMs don’t hit airplanes. They’re like a shotgun charge that detonates in front of the plane. Shrapnel from the blast smashes into the airplane.

After escaping the first SAM attack, D’Andrea was back with a second flight of A-4 Skyhawks in the afternoon.

“I saw where the SAMs were. I went down with the flight following. We dropped seven or eight 500-pound bombs,” he said. “We knocked out the whole site.”

It was for a mission the year before that he received the Distinguished Flying Cross. It was Nov. 16, 1966, the monsoon season in Vietnam. The weather was lousy near Chu Lai.

“We got an alert to launch despite the weather. When I reached 3,000 feet I climbed above the clouds and was listening to the radio. It said one of our CH-46 helicopters went down near Khe Sanh. The crew was receiving heavy fire from a .50 caliber machine gun,” he recalled. “The radio said no one in an airplane could get in below the clouds and suppress the enemy fire. I said I’d try.”

With the help of the Dong Ha control tower, D’Andrea was put in touch with a small spotter plane. The pilot of the Cessna brought him up to speed on what was happening on the ground with the helicopter crew and what he might be able to do to help.

“I saw a hole in the weather about 20 or 30 miles off shore. I went down and got underneath it. I was flying about 500 feet off the ground. I flew down the coast to Dong Ha. Then I flew up a nearby river with the help of the forward air controller flying the Cessna,” he said. “He helped me find the enemy machine gun and we started drawing fire from it.”

He made a couple of low-level passes over the enemy position. On the first pass he scored a direct hit on the machine gunners with napalm bomb. He flew back over the target a second time and dropped another bomb just to make sure the enemy gunners were history.

“I didn’t receive the DFC for knocking out the machine gun. What I got it for was flying so low and slow in such hazardous weather conditions under enemy fire, according to the commendation,” D’Andrea said.

The retired Marine aviator had another combat mission he vividly recalls. He knocked out a North Vietnamese patrol boat attempting to capture a downed aviator who parachuted from his F-4 into the Gulf of Tonkin off the coast of North Vietnam.

“It was an emergency. An observer bailed out of a crippled F-4 about three miles off the coast. There was a North Vietnamese patrol boat heading for the flier,” D’Andrea said. “The Air Force brought in a plane that shot at the enemy boat, but it didn’t even slow it down. Another flight of Air Force planes came in and shot at the fast 30- to 35 foot-long boat with 20 mm, but didn’t hit it.

Maj. Tom D'Andrea is awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for a combat mission he flew to protect the survivors of a downed CH-46 helicopter near Khe Sanh, Vietnam.  Photo provided

Maj. Tom D’Andrea is awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for a combat mission he flew to protect the survivors of a downed CH-46 helicopter near Khe Sanh, Vietnam. Photo provided

“The Air Force flight leader said over his radio, ‘Anyone in the area, can you give us a hand?’ We had gone out there to fly over and watch in our planes so we were in the area. I called the flight leader and said, ‘You want us to sink that boat?

“‘Yea,’ he responded.

“I went down to about 50-feet off the water and slid two napalm bombs right into it. The boat burst into flames, turned sharply, exploded and sank.”

Then an Air Force rescue helicopter swooped in and plucked the downed aviator out of the sea.

“The next night the aviators who had been in the damaged F-4 came to Chu Lai, where we were based, and bought us drinks all night long. Boy were they happy,” D’ Andrea remembered with a smile.

Col. Tom D'Andrea of Punta Gorda, Fla. takes a look at a model of an A-4 Skyhawk attack bomber like the one he flew in Veitnam in 1966 and 1967. The local aviator flew 118 combat missions during that war, 40 of them over enemy territory in North Vietnam. Sun photo by Don Moore

Col. Tom D’Andrea of Punta Gorda, Fla. takes a look at a model of an A-4 Skyhawk attack bomber like the one he flew in Veitnam in 1966 and 1967. The local aviator flew 118 combat missions during that war, 40 of them over enemy territory in North Vietnam. Sun photo by Don Moore

During his two tours of duty in Vietnam, 1966-1968, he flew 118 combat missions. Forty of those missions were over North Vietnam.

Col. Tom D’Andrea wrapped up his military career in 1980 as director of the Marine Corps Aviation Museum in Quantico, Va. He and his wife, Dianne, and their two children moved to Punta Gorda that same year. He has been active behind the scenes in local Republican politics over the years.

D’Andrea’s File

Name: Tom D’Andrea
D.O.B: 30 Oct. 1930
Hometown: Chicago, Ill.
Currently: Punta Gorda, Fla.
Entered Service: October 1952
Discharged: July 1980
Rank: Colonel
Unit: Marine Attack Squadron 211
Commendations: Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying Cross, Bonze Sart with Combat V, Meritorious Service Medal,(3 Awards), Air Medal (5 Awards), Navy Commendation Medal with Combat V, Secetary of the Navy Achievement Medal. Vietname Cross of Gallantry with Palm, Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry, Combat Action Ribbon, Presidential Unit Citation, Navy Unit Citation, National Defense Medal, Vietnam Battle Stars (5), Vietnamese Service Medal, Department of Defense Medallion, Naval Aviator Wings
Battles/Campaigns: Veitnam War

This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Sunday, Dec. 26, 2004 and is republished with permission.

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