Valor: The Seventh Man

Feb. 1, 1990

Capt. John O. Mize bent his B-52D into a sharp turn away from his objective, a surface-to-air missile (SAM) site, VN-243, near Hanoi. It was his fourth Linebacker II mission and his 295th in Southeast Asia. Dec. 27, 1972, was the ninth day of the “eleven-day war” that finally brought North Vietnam to the truce table, led to return of the POWs, and lowered the curtain on direct American participation in the Vietnam War.

Seconds after bombs away, Mize, copilot Capt. Terrence Gruters, and gunner TSgt. Peter Whalen counted a barrage of 15 SAMs headed their way. Already they had evaded several SAMs in the target area, but not a mass firing of this size. Fourteen of the missiles missed, but the 15th exploded with a tremendous concussion between the No. 4 engine and the fuselage. Shrapnel hit Mize in the left thigh, lower leg, and hand. Whalen and radar navigator Capt. Bill North were wounded in the legs. The cockpit was filled with debris. Before Mize could react, 200 tons of aircraft plunged toward the earth, with all four engines of the left wing knocked out, engine No. 1 on fire, navigation and engine instruments inoperative, and most of the power boost for flight controls gone. Only one alternator, the radio, and cockpit lights were functioning.

With virtually no power boost, it took a superhuman effort by Mize and Gruters to regain control of the shattered bomber. After a rapid damage assessment, Mize knew they could not make it back to U Tapao in Thailand, where the 28th Bombardment Group was based. “The question was,” says Mize, “how far we could get before we had to abandon the aircraft.” Whether anyone had flown a damaged B-52 with all engines out on one side, using only needle, ball, and airspeed (the latter erratic and undependable), he didn’t know, but they would give it their best shot. “Everyone knew what to do,” Mize said. “They were absolutely professional in every respect.”

As soon as the bomber was under control, navigator Lt. Bill Robinson gave Mize a dead-reckoning heading from their last known position to friendly territory. Separated from the other bombers in Ash cell and with no defensive systems operational, the B-52 limped westward toward Nakhon Phanom (NKP) in northern Thailand. How long would the badly damaged left wing hold? What other structural damage had the aircraft sustained? No one knew.

In order to maintain bailout altitude, Mize repeatedly descended 1,500 feet, then climbed back 1,000 feet. Over northern Laos their desperate situation began to deteriorate still further. The bomb bay doors fell open, one side of the landing gear began to cycle up and down, and other electrical systems went haywire. Forty-five minutes after they were hit, it was time to bail out, but navigator Robinson calculated they were over jagged mountains. Another 30 miles would put them over flat land near NKP–if the burned and battered left wing held.

As they approached NKP, Captain Mize felt “a kind of death throe” run through the B-52. He called each crew member, ordering him to bail out. Gruters, Whalen, radar navigator Capt. Bill North, and EWO Capt. Dennis Anderson (the last two, from the 7th Bombardment Group, were substitutes on the mission) went out on order, but Robinson’s seat would not eject.

Robinson told Mize that he would go out the hole where the radar navigator had ejected. Since there would be no contact with Robinson after he left his seat, Mize, knowing the left wing could go any moment, told Robinson he would stay with the aircraft for three minutes, giving the navigator time to bail out. Before that time was up, all electrical systems failed, signaling the end of that B-52. Mize called Robinson once more. Getting no response, he punched out as the aircraft went down. All crew members were picked up by rescue choppers within a few minutes.

For his superb airmanship and for laying his life on the line to assure Robinson’s escape, Mize was awarded the Air Force Cross, the first SAC man to receive that medal. The other crew members were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for heroism, and all six received the Purple Heart for wounds and injuries suffered in their night bailout.

Now retired and living in Oscoda, Mich., Mize believes “there was a Seventh Man aboard” on that memorable night. Who could argue the point?

Published February 1990. For presentation on this web site, some Valor articles have been amended for accuracy.