BY DUANE A. VACHON, PH.D. The USS TICONDEROGA (CVA 14) was first in Vietnam waters in late 1944 when fighter planes from the TICONDEROGA and the USS HANCOCK flew strike missions against enemy vessels in Saigon Harbor. The TICONDEROGA, the fourteenth U.S. aircraft carrier to be built, was on station during the very early years of the Vietnam war and remained throughout most of the duration of the war.
The “World Famous Golden Dragons” of Attack squadron 192 returned to the waters off North Vietnam in November 1966, their third combat deployment and a cruise that would prove to be both intense and noteworthy.
Captain Michael John Estocin is the only Navy jet pilot to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor for a combat role. He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty on 20 and 26 April 1967. While the Congressional Medal of Honor is not normally given for a combination of missions, an exception was made for this very intense two-day SHRIKE mission and, according to those who flew with Estocin, the honor was well-deserved.
Michael J. Estocin was an A4E Skyhawk pilot and the operations officer of Attack Squadron ONE NINE TWO, onboard the USS TICONDEROGA. On March 11, 1967, Estocin was the lead pilot of a three-plane group in support of a coordinated strike against two thermal power plants in Haiphong. Estocin was to fly SHRIKE, which was considered among the toughest of the war. He was one of six SHRIKE pilots in the squadron on this, his second tour of Vietnam. The previous month, the executive officer of the squadron, Commander Ernest M. “Mel” Moore, had been hit on a SHRIKE mission and had been captured by the North Vietnamese.
The SHRIKE pilot’s job was to fly ahead of the strike group by five to seven minutes literally trying to draw fire from the surface-to-air missile emplacements. When the ground radar found the SHRIKE, the pilot would fire anti-radar missiles at SAM sites. The goal was either to actually knock out the SAM radar or, as was sometimes the case, to force the North Vietnamese to turn off the radar, enabling the alpha strike force behind the SHRIKE aircraft to fly on and off their targets without SAMs launched against them. The more SAMs that were fired at the SHRIKES meant fewer fired at the formations, which had to stay together to complete their part of the mission.
During the operation, Estocin provided warnings to the strike group leaders of SAM threats, and personally neutralized three SAM sites. Although Estocin’s aircraft was severely damaged by an exploding missile, he reentered the target area and prosecuted a SHRIKE attack amidst intense anti-aircraft fire. He left the target area when he had less than five minutes of fuel remaining. Estocin refueled during his return to the ship.
Six days later, on April 26, Estocin again flew a SHRIKE mission over Haiphong against enemy fuel facilities. Again, his aircraft was seriously damaged by shrapnel from an exploding SAM, but he gained control of the plane and launched his SHRIKE missiles before departing the area. Estocin called, “I’m hit,” and his wingman informed him that he was trailing fuel and on fire. The aircraft was observed to recover after 4-5 uncontrolled aileron rolls, and Estocin turned toward the sea calling: “I’m going down, switch to channel five” (Search and Rescue Common Frequency). Estocin was observed by his wingman to be sitting erect and appeared to be uninjured. The cockpit area of the aircraft was undamaged by the missile. Passing an altitude of 6000 feet the aircraft again commenced a series of uncontrolled aileron rolls, and then stabilized in the inverted position descending in a 10-15 degree dive.
Estocin’s wingman observed the aircraft enter a 3500 feet undercast cloud layer in the inverted position. Maximum ground elevation in the area was 1,086 feet. The islands in the vicinity of Haiphong, where the aircraft was last seen, are sparsely populated, densely covered with foliage, and ideal for escape and evasion. No part of the ejection sequence was observed by the wingman, who was less than 1,000 feet from the aircraft throughout this period. The overcast cloud layer bottoms were lying on the ground which precluded observation of aircraft impact or immediate search of the area for the pilot. Radio contact was lost with Estocin after his aircraft entered the cloud layer.
Electronic and visual searches were conducted until dark and began again at the first light. No voice or other electronic communications were established, and a visual search failed to locate the aircraft crash site or any sign of the pilot. No reports of pilot capture or aircraft downing in the area was reported by the Vietnamese following this incident. It was the considered opinion of the Commanding Officer that Estocin be carried as Missing In Action.
On April 26 and 27, Radio Hanoi broadcasted information indicating that Estocin may have been captured. U.S. intelligence sources reported that Estocin was alive in North Vietnam, as a prisoner of war and his status was changed to reflect this. An interesting side-note to Estocin’s story is that one of his squadron mates, who actually wrote the citation application for Estocin’s mission, never knew that there was the chance he had ejected. For the next 20 years, the squadron member believed no word had ever been surfaced on the fate of Michael Estocin. This is not in the least unusual, given the U.S. Government’s conservative policy of releasing information on Americans who are missing. Much of the information publicly released is classified or incomplete. This would also apply even to military personnel who did not have a “need to know.”
Estocin’s family wrote and sent packages. In August, 1972, a package sent by Mike’s sister was returned from Hanoi. All the contents were still in the package, but it had been opened and other items had been added.
Added to the box was a crudely cut, hand-sewn felt bootie with two “M’s” cut out of felt on it (Michael’s wife’s name is Maria). Inside the bootie were three hearts and two scraps of felt (The Estocin’s have three children). The Navy could not determine how this could have happened. Mike’s family felt they were made by Mike and were heartened by this sign of his well-being.
In 1973, 591 American prisoners were released from North Vietnam. Estocin was not among them. Returned POWs heard his name in several camps, and sources reported that he was alive, still held prisoner. Hanoi denies any knowledge of Estocin. He is among nearly 2500 Americans still missing from the Vietnam war.
Since the war ended, nearly 10,000 reports have been received relating to Americans missing in Southeast Asia which have convinced many officials that large numbers are still alive as captives. Estocin could be one of them.
Captain Michael John Estocin’s name is engraved on a wall in the Courts of the Missing at the Honolulu Memorial, in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, Honolulu Hawaii.
THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES
in the name of the Congress of the United States
takes pride in presenting the
MEDAL OF HONOR
Michael John Estocin
United States Navy
for services as set forth in the following
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty on 20 and 26 April 1967 as a pilot in Attack Squadron 192, embarked in USS Ticonderoga (CVA-14). Leading a 3-plane group of aircraft in support of a coordinated strike against two thermal power plants in Haiphong, North Vietnam, on 20 April 1967, Capt. Estocin provided continuous warnings to the strike group leaders of the surface-to-air missile (SAM) threats, and personally neutralized 3 SAM sites. Although his aircraft was severely damaged by an exploding missile, he reentered the target area and relentlessly prosecuted a SHRIKE attack in the face of intense antiaircraft fire. With less than 5 minutes of fuel remaining he departed the target area and commenced in-flight refueling which continued for over 100 miles. Three miles aft of Ticonderoga, and without enough fuel for a second approach, he disengaged from the tanker and executed a precise approach to a fiery arrested landing. On 26 April 1967, in support of a coordinated strike against the vital fuel facilities in Haiphong, he led an attack on a threatening SAM site, during which his aircraft was seriously damaged by an exploding SAM; nevertheless, he regained control of his burning aircraft and courageously launched his SHRIKE missiles before departing the area. By his inspiring courage and unswerving devotion to duty in the face of grave personal danger, Captain Estocin upheld the highest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service.
/s/ Jimmy Carter
The information in this article was sourced from a variety of sources both internal and external. Every effort was made to ensure that the information is current and correct. These articles are presented to honor the heroes they are written about.