Records of the early days of the Navy’s aerial electronic reconnaissance efforts in the European area are vague. Through research of unit histories, personal interviews, and with some speculation, the following information has been discerned.
In much the same way as in the Pacific, the Navy’s dedicated airborne aerial reconnaissance program in Europe had its genesis with patrol squadrons in World ,War Two. It appears that one of these European-based squadrons had a secondary task of electronic recce. At the end of the war, VP-1I4 had a three-plane detachment of Consolidated PB4Y-I Liberators based at NAS Port Lyautey, French Morocco. Following the war, until June 1950, the squadron (variously designated VP-HL-6 and finally VP-26, which it carries today) maintained a permanent detachment of PB4Y-2 Privateers at Port Lyautey, while the parent squadron switched between the Moroccan base and NAS Patuxent River, Md.
During this period, the Port Lyautey detachment aircraft were specially configured for the electronic reconnaissance mission, and thus present the earliest traceable origins of VQ-2.
The primary operating areas for the electronic reconnaissance versions of VP-26’s “4Y-2”s were the Baltic and Adriatic Seas, with tasking against Soviet radar facilities. The squadron’s “electronic” Privateers operated from Port Lyautcy under the guise of acting as courier aircraft for US. embassies and missions throughout Europe, Scandinavia and Western Asia. During one of these Baltic Sea missions occurred the first in a long series of incidents of the “Cold War” involving U.S. reconnaissance aircraft and Sino-Soviet fighters.
On 8 April 1950, a VP-26 PB4Y-2 (BuNo 59645) and its ten-man crew were lost in the Western Baltic Sea, apparently after being attacked by Soviet aircraft approximately 80 nm southeast of Gotland Island. Earlier in April the Privateer had deployed from Port Lyautey to the U.S. Air Force Base at Wiesbaden, Germany. Leaving one crewman on the ground, Aviation Electronic Technician- Stephen Zakian, the patrol bomber took off at 1031 Saturday, 8 April on a classified mission.
At 1330 the aircraft reported it was flying over Bremerhaven, Germany, and at 1440 made its last radio report. At 2330 VP-26 headquarters at Port Lyautey received a dispatch from the commanding officer of the U.S. Naval Base in Bremerhaven Stating PB4Y-2 bureau number 59645 was declared overdue by USAF Flight Service in Frankfurt. According to a later Soviet report, the Navy aircraft was sighted at 1739 on 8 April over Leyaya, Soviet Latvia, and mistakenly identified as a B-29 bomber. It was then intercepted and ordered to land, whereupon it reportedly exchanged fire with the Russian fighters and headed out to sea. The credibility of the Soviet report was seriously weakened by the fact that the Privateer’s only armament was a .45 cal. pistol carried by one of the officer crewmen.
According to subsequently declassified VP-26 reports, by 0400 on 9 April three PB4Y-2s were ordered from Port Lyautey to Wiesbaden to conduct a search for BuNo 59645. VP-26 Privateers piloted by LT Rice, LTJG Linker and a third by LT Cobb, with the squadron executive officer on board, were launched in quick order. After a short stay in Wiesbaden, the aircraft moved on to Copenhagen, Denmark, and initiated search operations by the 10th. Before the search concluded, a fourth VP-26 Privateer and approximately 25 USAF aircraft would scour the Baltic for ten days.
A life raft, identified as VP-26 property, was picked up by a Swedish fishing vessel a few days 5fter the search was suspended. Similarly, the British freighter Beechland pulled an empty aircraft life raft from the Baltic Sea 45 miles southeast of Stockholm. The raft was positively identified by the serial and contract numbers as having been issued to a PB4Y-2. After the incident a stiff note of protest and a rebuttal of the Soviet report was sent to the Russian government by the U.S. State Department.
Numerous Soviet naval and air contacts were reported by U.S. search aircraft, and in the VP-26 squadron report, at least two PB4Y-2 APS-15 radar operators reported noise- modulated radar jamming. The jamming obliterated the APS-15 scopes in up to 30-degree sectors for as long as three hours. The reports varied as to the origin of the jamming, but it was believed to have originated from a Soviet submarine or from ashore in Latvia.
No trace of the ten-man crew was ever found and eventually they were presumed dead. The crewmembers were: LTs John H. Fette and Howard W. Skeschaf; LTJG Robert D. Reynolds; ENS Tommy L. Burgess; AD1s Joe H. Danens Jr. and Jack W. Thomas; AT1 Frank L. Beckman; CT3 Edward J. Purcell; AL3 Joseph J. Bourassa; and AT3 Joseph N. Rinnier Jr.
In January 1955, two Americans were repatriated from Russian prison camps where they had been held since the end of WWII. They reported hearing of American prisoners who had been shot down over the Baltic Sea. Actual sighting of the Americans was reported by a third repatriate, a Yugoslav, who had served time in the infamous Soviet prison coal mine of Vorkuta, above the Arctic Circle. He alleged that one of his fellow prisoners had been a U.S. Navy officer from the lost Privateer. However, this claim was never confirmed.
A series of investigations by Naval Intelligence and demands to the Soviets by the State Department were to no avail. The fate of the VP-26 crew was never determined positively.
The First Unit Forms
Although definitive evidence is sparse, it appears that concurrent with VP-26’s departure from Port Lyautey in the summer of 1950, a new unit was formed there utilizing three VP-26 det PB4Y-2s and some operating personnel from the squadron. This organization, designated NAF Patrol Unit, was manned by approximately 70 personnel and was dedicated to the mission of airborne aerial reconnaissance for the European theater.
By 1951 the new unit had replaced its Privateers with four Martin P4M-1Q Mercators, and later added a stripped Lockheed P2V-2 Neptune for pilot training. As covered in part one of this history, the P4M-1Q was a specially configured modified version of the basic P4M-l patrol bomber with two reciprocating and two auxiliary jet engines.
Heading the new unit as OinC was a CDR Larson, with LCDR Peeler as his assistant. An interview with a former P4M-1Q tail gunner, Freeman Dias of Bristol, R.I., indicated CDR Robert R. Sparks, who later served as a commanding officer of VQ-2, relieved CDR Larson as OinC about mid-1953.
Mr. Dias recalled the P4M-IQ had some protection against the ever present threat of communist shootdown in the form of 20mm nose and tail guns along with a .50 cal. upper fuselage turret. Even with this protection there were, nevertheless, instances of hostile action against the reconnaissance aircraft. For instance, sketchy information shows a P4M-1Q shot up badly during a mission in late 1951 or early 1952. A LT Huddleston was the Mercator pilot during the attempted shootdown incident, where at least one crewman was killed.
By May 1953 NAF Patrol Unit was redesignated Detachment Able of Airborne Early Warning Squadron Two (VW-2). VW-2 Det Able operated much the same as VP-26’s det, a permanent unit at Port Lyautey under a squadron homeported at NAS Patuxent River. In the Pacific, a twin unit, VW-I Det Able, conducted reconnaissance from NS Sangley Point.
Growing out of VW-2 Det Able resources, the airborne electronic reconnaissance assets of that unit were established as Electronic Countermeasures Squadron Two (ECMRon 2) on 1 Sep 1955. ECMRon2, assigned the alpha-numeric designation VQ-2, was homeported at NAF Port Lyautey, with a total complement of 24 officers and 78 enlisted men and CDR Kalin as the first CO.
The squadron initially used the P4M-1Q, and later, the P2V Neptune as mission aircraft. Two models of the Neptune appear in available records, the P2V-3 and the P2V-5F. The single “dash three“ was used only for pilot training and logistics. The P2V-5Fs would serve the squadron faithfully in the electronic recce role until the spring of 1960 when they began a phase-out period.
The Arrival of New Assets
The newer and faster carrier-capable A3D-1Q Skywarrior began arriving at VQ-2 in September 1956. During July two VQ-2 pilots had begun familiarization training at Patuxent River and in September ferried the first two Skywarriors to Port Lyautey. Later, on 6 December, the A3D-1Q flew its first operational mission with Skipper Kalin as the pilot.
Several major aircraft accidents occurred during VQ-2 operations while based at Port Lyautey, two of which resulted in loss of life. On 6 January 1958 a P4M-1Q crashed at Ocean View, Va. Four crewmen were killed, two received major injuries and the aircraft was destroyed. Then, on 16 October, an A3D-1Q crashed in the landing pattern at night while operating out of Incirilik AFB near Adana, Turkey. All four crewmen perished in the mishap.
Indicating the limited number of qualified personnel available for the VQ mission, CDR Sparks returned to the squadron as CO. He served from I July 1957 until 6 October 1958, by which time the squadron had grown to 48 officers and 281 enlisted.
Near the end of Sparks’ tenure an interesting article appeared in El Rotando, the Naval Base Rota, Spain, newspaper on 26 September 1958: “One of the U.S. Navy’s hottest attack bombers, a twin-jet Douglas A3D Skywarrior, roared down the runway of the Spanish-American naval complex here yesterday morning and was logged as the first jet aircraft to make an operational landing at the growing base. The powerful, near supersonic bomber was piloted here from her home base at Port Lyautey by CDR Robert R. Sparks. The copilot was CDR Clarendon Sigley.“ Although not stated in the article, the visit to Rota by the VQ-2 CO and XO was probably in conjunction with the upcoming relocation of the squadron from Morocco to Rota.
CDR Sparks was relieved by CDR Sigley in October 1958. After his selection to captain in later years, Robert Sparks was killed in a helicopter accident in Iceland.
The Move to Rota and More New Aircraft
CDR Sigley was at VQ-2’s helm during its move to Rota from late 1958 through the first few days of 1959. The move was officially completed 14 January. During the squadron’s relocation, five A3D-2Qs were received to replace the less-capable A3D-1Qs. It was not until 14 January 1960, with CDR P.D. Halpin as skipper, that VQ-2 was officially transferred to the joint U.S.-Spanish base. Earlier, on 1 January, the official name of the squadron was changed to Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron Two (VQ-2). Just two days after the move, on 16 January, a VQ-2 Mercator crashed during daylight hours while operating out of Incirilik AFB. The aircraft was destroyed and all 16 crewmen killed.
But operations must go on, and on 26 February the squadron received the first two Lockheed WV-2Q Super Constellations, or, more popularly, “Willie Victors”. On 31 March 1960 VQ-2 had an inventory of five A3D-2Q, two WV-2Q, three P2V-5F and two P4M-1Qs. The P2V-5F and P4M-1Q were soon to be phased out. Meanwhile, the newer WV-2Q and A3D-2Q continued to arrive at the squadron. In October 1962 the WV-2Q would be designated EC-12IM and the A3D-2Q became the EA-3B. Regardless of what designation they bore, these Willie Victors, or “Connies”, and Skywarriors, or “Whales“, would serve the VQ community for many years to come.
VQ-2, now under the command of CDR Arthur G. Elder, soon settled down at its new location and quickly adapted to its replacement aircraft. Meanwhile, the squadron continued its business of airborne electronic reconnaissance in support of the Sixth Fleet and national intelligence collection programs.
While under the command of CDR H.E. Fitzwater, on 22 May 1962 tragedy again struck the squadron when a WV-2Q, operating from Furstenfeldbruk, West Germany, was lost in a mishap with its 26-man crew. For unexplained reasons, the tail section of the Connie separated in flight, resulting in an uncontrollable crash.
As a petty officer second class, the author, then stationed with the Naval Security Group Activity Bremerhaven, was detailed to the crash scene to assist in recovery of classified material. In a bizarre incident one of the crewmen happened to be in the aircraft’s head, which was all the way aft, when the empennage broke off at the main cargo door point. The intact tail section, with its single passenger, was reported by several witnesses to have “flown” in a wide arc after the breakup and made a semi-controlled “landing” in a large freshly-plowed farm field. The crewman, apparently unhurt up to this point, was thrown from the tail section directly into a tree, where he was killed instantly from a broken neck.
The Series of Peacetime Crises Begins
In October 1962, VQ-2 deployed a detachment of aircraft and men to operate from NAS Key West, Fla., in response to the Cuban Missile Crisis. The electronic intelligence collected by VQ-2 was used to integrate the photography acquired by RF-8s, U-2s and RF-101s into a coherent set of intelligence information to assist in resolving this major superpower confrontation.
An accepted fact of an international crisis is the political and military decision-makers’ need for a greater quantity of near real-time intelligence. This important factor lay at the heart of VQ operations in its early days, and continues to do so today. Following the Cuban missile confrontation in 1962 was the Cyprus Crisis of 1964. At the time, CDR R.M. Davis was in command of VQ-2. Afterwards, a series of eastern Mediterranean crises provided ample opportunities for the squadron to collect and provide timely intelligence information to top-level decision-makers.
During the decade of the sixties, VQ-2 operations took on a more direct tactical fleet support role. This role was primarily in response to a rapidly growing and modernizing Soviet Navy which had established a continuous presence in the Mediterranean Sea, concurrent with the Cyprus Crisis. In the years to come, VQ-2 would experience a steady increase in the number of its electronic reconnaissance missions tasked against the Soviet Navy in the Mediterranean and other oceanic areas.
Partly because of the growth of the Soviet Navy as a new factor in the Southern European theater, the first VQ-2 EA-3B detachment went aboard a Mediterranean-based carrier in January 1965, under Skipper CDR C.A. Kiser. Since this initial Whale det embarked in Saratoga (CVA-60), VQ-2 has provided almost continuous electronic reconnaissance support to Sixth Fleet carriers. The first loss of a VQ-2 Skywarrior during carrier operations came 3 November 1966 while the squadron was under the command of CDR J.H. McConnell. The EA-3B, piloted by LCDR “Monty“ Lillebow, impacted the water aft of Independence (CVA-62) and was lost with its crew of six.
The Vietnam War
It was not only in routine recce operations and in peacetime crisis situations that VQ-2 saw action. There was also a war to be fought. The conflict had heated up in Southeast Asia, and by the autumn of 1965 the U.S. Navy required a degree of electronic recce capacity beyond that available in VQ-l. Consequently, beginning under the tenures of CDRs A.D. Burkett and E.Y. Laney, detachments of VQ-2 EA-3Bs and EC-121Ms were provided to the Pacific theater to conduct electronic reconnaissance in support of Navy combat operations in Vietnam. VQ-2 aircraft initially operated from NAS Cubi Point, the Gulf of Tonkin carriers, and DaNang. After detachment facilities were established at DaNang, VQ-2 EA-3Bs operated almost exclusively from that site with VQ-l aircraft. VQ-2 provided surface-to-air missile (SAM) and MiG threat warning services, which significantly contributed to the survivability of Navy strike aircraft. These VQ-2 assets also provided signals intelligence (Sigint) collection for electronic order of battle (EOB) updating and combat contingency planning.
VQ-2 lost one aircraft and a portion of a crew in two separate incidents in Southeast Asia operations between 1965 and 1968. During 1966 an EA-3B in transit from Cubi Point to DaNang stalled in probable icing conditions at 45,000 ft and entered a violent spin. Although the pilot, LCDR Dave Caswell, recovered the A-3 at low altitude and landed safely, the four aft crewmen had already bailed out and were presumed drowned in the heavy seas.
In the summer of 1968 an enemy rocket attack against the base at DaNang resulted in the partial destruction of a VQ-2 EA-3B (BuNo 144848) in its revetment. Although a VQ-l EC-121M and EA-3B were also damaged in this attack, there were no personnel injuries. The VQ-2 Whale, although heavily damaged in the nose/cockpit section, was subsequently placed aboard an MSTS carrier to be transported to ConUS for repairs. On 14 December 1968, the EA-3B broke loose from its deck tied owns during rough weather in Tokyo Bay and was lost overboard. This incident signaled the beginning of the end of VQ-2 operations in Southeast Asia, as things were again heating up in the Med.
During the remainder of the Vietnam War VQ-2 had continued airborne electronic reconnaissance operations at a high pace in the crisis prone Mediterranean. While operating from Ramstein AFB, Germany, in the spring of 1968, another EA-3B bailout occurred. The aircraft, piloted by LCDR “Stu” Corey, was entering the Ramstein landing pattern near the town of Landstuhl on 16 March, when an inboard slat malfunction occurred at approximately 1,200 ft. With the EA-3B apparently entering a stall in a nose-up port turn, the pilot signalled for crew bailout. (EA-3B crews do not have the luxury of ejection seats!) The “back end” crew, consisting of LTJG “Dick” McBurnett, CPOs “Obie” O’Brien and Bob Johnson, and PO1 Dave Barlag, quickly “hit the silk” as they had practiced numerous times in squadron ditch and bailout drills. Because of the low altitude, the crew had only one or two swings in their chutes before landing in a heavily wooded area. Only Barlag landed on firm ground, while the other three chutes were caught in tall fir trees. Chief O’Brien was removed from his tree by the local fire department, while Johnson managed to free himself, suffering minor injuries.
Regrettably, LTJG McBurnett was less fortunate. In trying to disentangle himself from the tree, his chute broke free, resulting in a fall of 50-70 ft and severe back injuries. After two hours, McBurnett was finally located and rescued by a USAF helicopter. Ironically, his father also was injured a few kilometers from this accident site. He was hit by artillery fragments during the Battle of the Bulge in WWII.
Meanwhile, after the crew bailout, LCDR Corey recovered the EA-3B when the slat became operative, and successfully landed at Ramstein. Corey’s skillful recovery of the aircraft came only seconds before the final crewmembers, CPO Sweitzer and LTJG “Shep” Smith, were to bailout. The author, who was standing the Squadron Duty Officer watch in Rota at the time, can recall the initial telephone conversation with LTJG Smith after he arrived at Ramstein operations. As Smith was reporting the grim details of the bailout, the sound of heavy fight boots at a dead run over the tile floors could be heard in the background. Fortunately, these sounds were made by Dave Barlag as he arrived, parachute and all, after hitchhiking a ride to base operations with a German civilian in a Volkswagen “Bug”. He brought the good news of sighting the other three chutes on his way down.
The Loss of a Skipper
Several other accidents occurred during the 1960s resulting in the loss of 56 additional lives. In a 4 June 1968 EA-3B accident, the new squadron CO, CDR T.E. Daum, was killed with his electronic warfare department head, LCDR Bruce Ford; the special security officer, LCDR Jim Frazee; and the squadron navigation officer, LCDR Charlie Best. Two petty officer crewmen, Jim Henderson and Jack Snowdy, miraculously survived, but were hospitalized for several months. CDR Ted Daum had been CO of VQ-2 only 33 days at the time of his death.
Apparently the Skywarrior lost an engine just after takeoff and slowly lost altitude until it struck the ground in a sugar beet field approximately one mile east of the Rota airbase. The tail probably touched down first on the downslope of a small hill, which pitched the nose downward to begin a violent tumble. As the aircraft disintegrated, Petty Officers Henderson and Snowdy were thrown clear. LTs “Gus” Littlefield andTom Fritz were on their way to work at the squadron when they saw the aircraft go down. After parking their cars and making their way across the field on foot to the accident site, they initially found no signs of life. Shortly thereafter, a weak voice from a clump of grass asked, “Hey Gus, you got a cigarette?” It was then that Littlefield and Fritz found Henderson, and a few moments later, Snowdy, alive but very badly injured.
CDRs RW. Arn and H.G. Hatch led VQ-2 through the remainder of the busy 1960s when Soviet naval activity and Arab-Israeli tensions in the Mediterranean, as well as the Vietnam War, tugged at the squadron’s limited assets.
A Period of Continued Crisis
The decade of the 1970s was frequently punctuated by international crises in VQ-2’s theater of operations, especially in the Mediterranean. Notable among these were the 1970 Jordanian Crisis, the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the 1974 crisis in Cyprus and the continuing unrest in Lebanon. These and other situations invariably resulted in the presence of the Sixth Fleet offshore, which in turn required the services of VQ-2 in providing urgently needed tactical intelligence. Under skipper CDR Al Gallotta, VQ-2 received its second Meritorious Unit Commendation for superior electronic reconnaissance operations during the Jordanian Crisis 9 September to 31 October 1970. In part the citation stated: “These units (including VQ-2) contributed significantly to the effectiveness, mobility and success of fleet operations which were vital toward maintaining peace in the Mediterranean.”
With the presence of the Sixth Fleet at these crisis situations, came the ever-increasing presence of the Soviet Navy in ADM Gorshkov’s new peacetime instrument of foreign policy role. VQ-2 had to split its collection assets to monitor the actions ashore and those of the nearby Soviet naval units in an eyeball-to-eyeball stance with our own Sixth Fleet ships.
Arrival of the EP-3E
The 1970s also brought a vastly improved electronic reconnaissance platform to the VQ squadrons. The aging EC-121M was no longer able to meet the demands of high-tempo fleet reconnaissance missions in the dynamic environment of superpower competition. Consequently, on 31 July 1971 while under CDR J.E. Taylor, VQ-2 received its first Lockheed EP-3E Aries. By 1976 the sixth and final EP-3E had arrived in the squadron, for a total complement of six EA-3Bs, six EP-3Es, a TA-3B which had been acquired in May 1972, and a UP-3A acquired shortly afterwards. The TA-3B and UP-3A were valuable for pilot training and logistics purposes.
Although the very high fatality count of the 1960s was not repeated, mishaps nevertheless continued with the deaths of 12 VQ-2 flyers. On 26 February 1970 an EA-3B was lost while operating from Roosevelt (CVA-42) in the Mediterranean. The catapult system malfunctioned in mid-stroke, resulting in the Skywarrior “dribbling” off the bow and being run over by the carrier. Four of the crewmembers made the ultimate sacrifice for their country in the accident, as LCDR Blaine Thrasher, LT Tom Walls, AEI Bond and an unidentified passenger were lost at sea. A fifth VQ-2 crewmember, the plane captain, Petty Officer “Rosey” Rozier, miraculously survived to be picked up by the plane guard.
VQ-2 was under the command of CDR Jack Taylor from June 1971 to July 1972. While a relative calm was ongoing in the European theater at the time, the significant military hardware buildup in Soviet client states such as Libya, Syria and Egypt drew the majority of the squadron’s attention. This buildup would soon erupt into a period of open hostilities between the Arabs and Israelis.
CDR J.D. Meyer became the 18th skipper of VQ-2 on 6 July 1973 and would soon be faced with a period of extremely high-tempo operations associated with the Yom Kippur War that October. For the extremely valuable electronic reconnaissance operations performed by VQ-2 during that conflict, the squadron was awarded the Navy Unit Commendation.
On 8 March 1974 another EA-3B was lost at sea while recovering on board America (CYA-66). Fortunately no deaths or injuries were associated with the incident, largely due to the superior airman ship of the pilot. LT Dave Longeway kept the Whale in the best possible attitude when ditching became inevitable. Cause of the accident was determined to be the parting of the purchase cable, which is connected to the arresting gear below decks, inside the coupling which attaches to the cross-deck pendant. All seven crewmen exited the aircraft before the Whale, true to its nautical nature, finally sounded, approximately five minutes after water entry. America’s rescue helicopter picked up the crew, and LT Longeway was awarded the Air Medal for his superior airmanship.
Tragedy again struck VQ-2 9 July 1974, when the squadron’s trainer/logistics aircraft crashed shortly after takeoff from Naples, Italy. The TA-3B was transporting maintenance personnel back to Rota, where they had been involved in repairing another squadron aircraft. Killed in the crash were the pilot, LCDR Dwight L. Worrell, navigator LTJG Douglas N. Davis and six enlisted aircrewmen/ground maintenance personnel: AMN2 Robert F. Carney, ADJ2 Robert S. Charrington, AE2 William P. Beuler, AQ2 John G. Pauljohn, ADJ3 Orval T. May and AE3 Carl F. Schwartz. July 1974 also brought the retirement of the squadron’s last EC-121M.
Some Historic Firsts
Five more commanding officers led VQ-2 through the decade of the ’70s: CDRs D.J. Alberg, D.N. Hagen, T.A. Peltz, G.J. Hopkins and CAPT J.E. Taylor.
One of these COs recorded a “first” when CDR Dale Hagen became the first Naval Flight Officer to command a VQ squadron. The “nonpilot” aviation officer came into being 16 October 1956 when the first five graduates of the Navigator/Bombardier School at NAS Corpus Christi, Tex., received their Naval Observer wings. Later, in the 1960s, the Naval Aviation Observer (NAO) was created when naval aircraft began to take on missions sufficiently complex to require the fulltime services of an aviation officer other than the pilot. In 1969 the NAOs were redesignated Naval Flight Officers (NFO), given a new style set of wings, and promises of more “positions of responsibility,” which translated to commands. The command opportunities for NFOs came slowly, however, as the traditional “pilot as a crew leader” philosophy prevailed.
The author can still vividly recall the frustration experienced as an NFO junior officer in VQ-2 from 1967 until 1970. In those early days, before the “enlightenment”, an NFO was not allowed to lead a detachment as officer-in-charge, even if senior to the pilot. Fortunately, the Navy recognized the morale and other implications of such a policy, and by the mid-1970s NFOs had begun to garner a few command positions in Naval Aviation. Since CDR (now RADM) Dale Hagen’s tenure, five other NFOs have commanded VQ-2 and a sixth, CDR Tom Quigley, at this writing, awaits in the wings as the XO at Rota.
CAPT J .E. Taylor, who had commanded VQ-2 June 1971-July 1972, bears the distinction of having commanded VQ-2 on two occasions. CAPT Taylor’s second command tour came during October 1978-June 1980. The repeat performance occurred as a direct result of an overall deterioration in the quality of squadron operations and a corresponding need for strong, experienced leadership to overcome a difficult period in VQ-2’s history. As an individual who had accumulated a total of four previous tours in the two VQ squadrons, as well as 10,000 flight hours, “CAPT Jack” was the logical choice to put VQ-2 back on track. For the three-week unscheduled turnover period until CAPT Taylor was able to return to Rota, CDR Robert L. Prehn came from CTF-67 staff to fill in as interim commanding officer.
CAPT Taylor and his XO, Tom Fritz, had their hands full re-establishing the unit’s performance. However, through strong leadership and the dedication of the men and women of VQ-2, the squadron excelled, and was awarded a Meritorious Unit Commendation for the period I March 1979 to 1 April 1980. In part, the citation accompanying the MUC read: “During this period, Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron Two consistently displayed outstanding leadership, unparalleled expertise, and untiring dedication in ensuring the success of vital airborne reconnaissance endeavors.”
The Frantic 1980s Begin
Satisfied that VQ-2 was back on course, CAPT Taylor relinquished command of the squadron to CDR Tom Fritz, who led VQ-2 from June 1980 until June 1981. As VQ-2 entered the 1980s, with the usual high standards of excellence restored, the squadron would face perhaps its most dynamic and productive period during peacetime operations. The Arab-Israeli situation, the “Crazy Colonel” Gadhafi in the Gulf of Sidra, a crisis in the Baltic involving Poland and the Soviet Union, and the ever-increasing activity level and modernization of the Soviet Navy, all kept the squadron’s assets stretched very thin through CDR John Flynn’s command tour. In addition to heavy tasking within the European theater, the Iranian Hostage Crisis and increasing tensions in Nicaragua pulled some of VQ-2’s already scarce electronic reconnaissance assets out of their primary theater of operations.
As VQ-2 entered the mid-1980s, the frenzied pace of operations did not let up. The Arab-Israeli Bekka War, the continuing Beirut Crisis with the U.S. Marine barracks bombing, and the Sixth Fleet December 1983 air strike into Lebanon, allowed little leisure time for the squadron.
VQ-2’s high op tempo and extreme professionalism from 1 June 1982 till 31 December 1983 did not go unnoticed. During this period VQ-2 won more unit awards than ever before in its history, including the first ever Battle “E” for a fleet air reconnaissance squadron. Under skipper Don East VQ-2 was awarded the Meritorious Unit Commendation for the period 1 June 1982-31 May 1983 “for meritorious service in connection with airborne reconnaissance in support of Second, Sixth and Seventh Fleet operations.” The award citation went on to say: “Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron Two demonstrated an unprecedented capability to react to contingency requirements in the Atlantic, European and Indian Ocean Theaters. This outstanding performance, during a period of difficult and complex tasking, displayed aggressive enthusiasm and the highest degree of professionalism which made Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron Two the leader in battle group support and signals intelligence collection.”
The second award won by VQ-2 during this 18-month period was the Navy Expeditionary Medal for its crucial role in the 1982 Lebanon Crisis. The squadron was awarded the NEM for the period August-November 1982. Finally, on 29 February 1984, VQ-2 was notified that it was recipient of the Battle “E” for 1983. This period spanned six months each of CDR East and CDR John Draper’s CO tours. For this award, VQ-2 competed in the Special Mission category for NavAirLant squadrons.
CDR Draper turned over command of VQ-2 to CDR E.A. Caldwell as the situation in the Mediterranean remained intense through the mid-1980s. Terrorism continued to show its ugly head in the Achille Lauro hijacking incident and the follow-on U.S. Navy force-down of the Egyptian airliner carrying the Arab hijackers to freedom. In short order, these incidents were followed by the Rome and Vienna airport slaughters perpetrated by Arab terrorists and the resulting U.S./Libya confrontation. And so, the need for VQ-2’s quick-reaction airborne electronic reconnaissance capabilities continued the ever-increasing spiral while the now 26-year-old EA-3B and 22-year-old EP-3Es struggled to meet the fast-paced demands.
Bringing VQ-2 Up to Date
Although one squadron lineman was killed in a ground accident 17 August 1980, VQ-2 experienced a period of no major aircraft accidents or flight casualties during the first seven years of the 1980s. After substantial damage from a bleed air leak in the center wing box to an EA-3B at Rota 5 June 1975 (no injuries), the squadron began a long series of major mishap-free flight hours.
CDR T.L. Hanson assumed command of VQ-2 in January 1986, with CDR Jay R. Kistler as XO, while activity in the Mediterranean remained at a high level. His command tenure began in the midst of the large-scale U.S. Navy operations in the Central Mediterranean off Libya. These operations were a strong message to Gadhafi and his state-sponsored terrorism. During these operations, a muscle-tensing situation developed as a VQ-2 EA-3B, operating from Coral Sea (CV-43), was intercepted by two Libyan MiG-25s 120 miles north of Tripoli. After coming close to the Whale and passing underneath it, the Foxbats left without incident. Interception of U.S. intelligence aircraft is not uncommon and usually passes without incident these days_ But it is never a comfortable situation and the recce crews are always faced with that great uncertainty.
It was VQ-2’s operations during crisis situations such as those in the Central Mediterranean, as well as overall superior performance, that led to a second Battle “E” award during this period.
The January 1986 operations in the Central Med would not be the Navy’s last encounter with the “Crazy Colonel”, however, as two other clashes occurred in late March and mid-April. The first of these began when Sixth Fleet aircraft operating in .international waters of the Gulf of Sidra were fired upon by Libyan SA-5 missiles- During the next 24-hour period at least two Libyan missile patrol boats were destroyed by Navy tactical air and surface combatants, as was the Sirte SA-5 site guidance radar by AGM-88 (HARM) anti-radiation missiles. There were no U.S. losses.
The second period of hostilities occurred in the wake of Libyan terrorist bombings of a Berlin nightclub and a TWA airliner, where U.S. citizens were killed in each case. These Libyan-sponsored terrorist activities drew the military response promised by President Reagan, involving both Sixth Fleet and USAF F-111 assets in a major strike against Al Azziziyah Army Barracks, Tripoli’s airport, the port of Sidi Bilal, Al Jumahiriya barracks and Benina Airfield.
U.S. NAVY AIRBORNE ELECTRONIC RECONNAISSANCE TODAY AND TOMORROW
Today VQ-l and VQ-2 continue to produce top quality intelligence collection, while flying some of the oldest aircraft and employing some of the most motivated and professional personnel in the fleet. Like any military organization, the fleet air reconnaissance squadrons recognize people as their principal asset. To identify the unique talents of its officer and enlisted aircrewmen, the VQ squadrons employ the following personnel designation descriptions:
1.Mission Commander— The MC designation is reserved for select pilots and NFOs, who by virtue of their extensive knowledge of the principles of electronic warfare, squadron aircraft operations and crew coordination, have been designated by their commanding officer as the individual ultimately responsible for conduct of the mission. This responsibility makes it imperative that the MC maintain full awareness of every aspect of the intelligence collection mission.
2. Electronic Warfare Aircraft Commander— the EWAC is a pilot with a high degree of maturity, experience, aeronautical skill, ability to perform under stress and a knowledge of electronic warfare. His primary responsibility is to ensure the in flight safety of his aircraft and crew.
3. Electronic Warfare Tactical Evaluator— The EVAL is a Naval Flight Officer tasked to manage the planning, collection and reporting requirements of the mission. The political sensitivities inherent in the various areas of VQ operations require the EVAL to be completely knowledgeable in areas of U.S. and foreign national objectives as well as military strategy and tactics.
4. Electronic Warfare Navigator— the EWAN is an NFO with a complete understanding of several navigation systems as well as a thorough knowledge of the airborne electronic reconnaissance mission.
5. Electronic Warfare Aircrewmen— The backbone of the VQ electronic warfare crew is made up of highly professional enlisted naval aircrewmen. The flight engineers on the EP-3E are usually drawn from the AD, AM and AE ratings. They are responsible for overall airworthiness of the airframe, from preflight through completion of postflight. In the EP-3E, the radioman’s position is usually manned by an AT who must be fully knowledgeable of the aircraft communication/navigation systems. The EP-3E Airborne Electronic Supervisor, or “tech”, is a senior AT who is responsible for ensuring all the sophisticated electronic warfare equipment is in optimum operating condition. The laboratory or “lab” operator is an airborne electronic warfare analyst whose tasks require a detailed knowledge of the complex analysis and recording systems of the aircraft. The bulk of the VQ naval aircrewmen aboard the EP-3E and EA-3B are designated Electronic Warfare Operators (EWOP). These highly trained technicians master the operations of complex electronic reconnaissance equipment as well as the myriad details of electromagnetic signals of interest.
Although the aircrew personnel seem to receive the primary focus of attention and publicity, they could not perform their vital mission effectively and safely without the dedicated efforts of the ground personnel. The VQ squadrons employ an extremely diverse spectrum of ground support personnel who are involved in such areas as aircraft and equipment maintenance, administration, training, intelligence, safety, signals analysis and reporting, legal, public affairs, and a variety of “creature comfort” functions. These personnel are equally as proficient and dedicated as the aircrews in their performance of mission.
In addition to the men and women in uniform, the VQ squadrons also employ a variety of DoD and industry contractor civilian personnel to perform certain highly-specialized functions. These VQ civilian personnel are fondly referred to as “the Q-Crabs”.
One group of these civilians is furnished to the VQ squadrons by the Reconnaissance, Electronic Warfare and Space Operations, Navy (REWSON) Division of the U.S. Navy Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command. These individuals, operating in technical/operational pairs, act as special assistants to the VQ squadron CO as well as performing specified engineering functions in the squadron special projects “Bicycle Shop”.
“Chuck” Christman began the VQ-l/REWSON association in 1955, and was paired with “Elmer” Ackerberg, who arrived in the mid-1960s. Christman remained with VQ-l until 1979 when he was replaced by Larry Sharp. Winton Lowery and “Nick” Nickelson began the VQ-2 association in 1967, and were replaced in the 1970s by “Pete” Petersen and Max Richardson. John Boyd and “Mark” Franklin occupy the REWSON billets in VQ-2 today.
Other civilians supporting the VQ squadrons over the years have been the technical representatives (Tech Reps) of the Lockheed and Douglas Aircraft Corporations, as well as intermittent support by various computer and electronics companies. Some of these individuals, such as the late “Danny” King, have been ardent supporters of the VQ community, both on and off duty.
EW Training for VQ-1/2 Personnel
Part One of this history documented the establishment of the Special Projects School for Air at NAAS San Clemente Island, Calif., on 1 July 1944. Since then the training site for airborne electronic reconnaissance crewmen has relocated on several occasions. At various times the officer and enlisted training could be found in Washington, D.C.; at NAS Glynco, Ga.; or at Corry Field in Pensacola, Fla. The training for airborne electronic reconnaissance finally settled at Pensacola, at the Naval Technical Training Center Corry Field in 1974 as the Consolidated Navy Electronic Warfare School (CNEWS). The CNEWS facility remains there today, operating several courses structured for the individual needs of the electronic warfare evaluator, electronic warfare aircraft commander, and the various enlisted electronic warfare operators.
The VQ Squadrons Today (1987)
Today at NAS Agana, Guam, VQ-l operates four EP-3E Aries, two EP-3B Batrack, seven EA-3B Skywarrior, two P-3A and one UP-3A Orion aircraft. At the time of this writing, VQ-l was under command of CDR Earl R. Smith with a total complement of 120 officers, 950 enlisted and 6 civilian personnel. The squadron remains committed to providing airborne electronic reconnaissance support to Pacific area commanders, under the operational control of Commander Task Force 72 (CTF-72) located in Kami Seya, Japan.
In the past seven years, VQ-1 has monitored the dramatic buildup of the Soviet Pacific Fleet as considerable Kremlin emphasis was shifted to the Far East region. VQ-l reconnaissance missions provide theater commanders and the national authorities with vital information relating the technical and operational capabilities of this growing Soviet Pacific Fleet. Pacific littoral conflict and crises also have drawn a considerable share of VQ-1 reconnaissance missions in recent years. Such occurrences as the KAL airliner shootdown, frequent flareups in Korea, the Chinese-Vietnamese conflict and the various Persian Gulf crises have kept the squadron on the move.
Finally, VQ-l plays a major role in fleet exercises, acting as both Blue and Orange electronic reconnaissance assets. The squadron not only provides the opposing commanders with the near real-time intelligence required for tactical decisions, but also gains an excellent opportunity for squadron aircrew training.
At NS Rota, Spain, VQ-2 operates 14 aircraft: six EP-3E, six EA-3B, one P-3A, and one UA-3B. As of this writing, VQ-2 was under command of CDR Jay Kistler and had a total complement of 100 officers, 580 enlisted and 3 civilian personnel. VQ-2 continues its electronic reconnaissance support to European and Atlantic area commanders, under the operational control of Commander Task Force 67 (CTF-67) in Naples.
In November 1985, VQ-2 celebrated the significant milestone of surpassing 10 1/2 years and a total of 70,000 major mishap-free flight hours. The clock for this record began 5 June 1975, after the EA-3B wing box incident. Attaining 70,000 hours of major mishap-free flying is acknowledged as a significant event in any U.S. Naval Aviation community, but it is especially noteworthy considering the 20-year plus age of the squadron’s aircraft.
VQ-2 extended its safety record for more than another year. But on 25 January 1987, as’ this history was being prepared, a tragic footnote was written when an EA-3B was lost at sea taking the lives of seven VQ-2 crewmen. The aircraft crashed while embarked in Nimitz (CVN-68), conducting operations in the Central Mediterranean. The Skywarrior, piloted by LTJG Alvin A. Levine, crashed into the water off the port side of Nimitz after an unsuccessful attempt at a night barricade arrestment. The EA-3B, BuNo 144850, broke up upon water impact and sank with no survivors. Subsequent SAR efforts located only debris. The pilot reportedly attempted the barricade arrestment after several unsuccessful tries at conventional arrestments and an aerial refueling. In addition to LTJG Levine, lost in the incident were navigator LCDR Ronald R. Callender, EW evaluators LTs Steven H. Batchelder and James D. Richards; aircrewmen AT3 Richard A. Hertzing, CT3 Patrick R. Price and CT3 Craig R. Rudolph. This incident marked the fifth loss of a VQ EA-3B aircraft while operating from carriers over a span of 23 years.
Because of the geographic and political nature of the region, VQ-2 is constantly stretched to its maximum operational limits. With the high tempo of Soviet naval operations from the Black Sea, Baltic Sea and Northern Fleets in recent years, VQ-2 has spent a considerable amount of time “over the high seas”. More importantly, VQ-2’s theater of operation has been the scene of one major international crisis after another. For example, since 1980, VQ-2 operations have provided vital information on the Gulf of Sidra clashes, the Polish Worker Crisis, the Bekka War, the continuing East Mediterranean crisis including the evacuations of international civilians and the PLO, the Marine Barracks bombing and the TWA Flight 847 hijacking.
Today, VQ-2 remains heavily involved in support of the Sixth Fleet, conducting operations in the Central Mediterranean off Libya in connection with America’s anti-terrorist stance. In addition to a heavily packed operational schedule, VQ-2 continues to provide electronic reconnaissance assets for both Blue and Orange force commanders in regional fleet exercises.
The VQ-2 squadron insignia probably best sums up what airborne electronic reconnaissance is all about. The emblem was designed in 1959 by LT Bockenhauer, who was killed shortly afterward in an aircraft accident. The black bat originally symbolized the P4M-1Q employed by the squadron in its earlier days. Today it represents the EP-3E and EA-3B. The lightning bolts are representative of electronic reconnaissance. The blue field and white stars represent the night sky which is the natural environment of the bat. The clouds represent high altitude flying and the use of cover, symbolizing undetected presence. The outer red border represents the original red field of the squadron flag, flown when VQ-2 was at Port Lyauety.
The future of the Navy’s airborne electronic reconnaissance program must be viewed with a mix of pessimism and optimism. Had this research effort been completed before late 1986, a view of the future for VQ-I and -2 would have been entirely pessimistic! The current holders of the VQ legacy appeared to face only more old hand-me-down aircraft and “band aid” fixes for both carrier- and land based assets.
After more than 26 years of faithful service as the VQ carrier-based aircraft, the aging EA-3B is scheduled to be gradually retired by 1992. Tragically, there was to be no organic carrier capability replacement dedicated to airborne electronic reconnaissance. Instead, the replacement capability, named Battle Group Passive Horizon Extension System (BGPHES), was to be a “black box” installed in standard carrier-based S-3 Vikings. In its primary mode, the BGPHES would receive and automatically data link signals back to the carrier where they would be “processed” by non-aircrew personnel.
The disadvantages of such a system were immediately and intuitively obvious. Not only was the S-3 on a short, tight tether to the carrier because of transmission path limitations, but while flying this black box in the electronic reconnaissance role, the S-3 would be effectively taken out of its primary ASW mission. Most importantly, however, there would be no trained and experienced VQ “team in the sky” to provide the all-important operational flexibility and the immediate distillation of information for use by battle group commanders. Instead, there would be a flow of unevaluated information back to the carrier for subsequent evaluation and distillation. Such an operation removed the VQ aircrew talent from the carrier where it has always provided a synergistic interaction with specialized command spaces such as CIC. Perhaps the ultimate flaw in this program was the effective severing of the carrier experience carried back to the VQ squadrons by the EA-3 B detachments. Without this personal fleet input to the VQ squadrons from the tailhook community, the ability of the squadrons to understand and fulfill the information needs of the battle group decision makers would be dramatically diminished.
In late 1986, fleet opposition to the BGPHES concept as a replacement for the EA-3B capability finally resulted in a new approach. This plan involves acquisition of a replacement airframe that will be organic to the carrier, dedicated solely to the mission of airborne electronic reconnaissance, and operated by the fleet experts in this field the VQ-1 and -2 “Batmen”. The latest initiative is being processed for the current budget, providing for 16 low-time S-3 airframes. This concept must receive strong and immediate Navy, DoD and Congressional approval if a viable airborne electronic reconnaissance capability is to continue within the carrier battle group/force structure!
The land-based VQ assets also are in a perilous position. The current EP-3E airframes are 21-23 years old and the “backend” sensor equipment is largely of 1960s technology. The EP-3Es are the oldest P-3A airframes currently being operated by the Navy. The only Navy program on the books to upgrade the land-based portion of the VQ capability is called CILOP (Conversion in Lieu of Procurement). This program is another in a historic series of “band aid” fixes to Navy airborne electronic reconnaissance. CILOP involves the conversion of 12 P-3C baseline (original model) Orions as replacements for the ancient EP-3Es. True to tradition, these aircraft are already an average of 10 years old and will be turning 12 or 13 before they enter operational service with VQ-1 and VQ-2. Even worse, the “backend” electronic reconnaissance equipment will initially be mostly the same 1960 technology, simply refurbished and cross-decked from the current EP-3E to the CILOP P-3C.
A researcher will find messages and open public statements where battle group commanders and other Navy leaders have lauded the virtues of the VQ capability. Battle group deployment debriefs and crisis after-action reports have consistently stated that the VQ capability, both carrier- and land-based, was totally indispensable to the conduct of operations. These same commanders have continually stated the operational need for significant improvements and updates to the electronic reconnaissance capability. Amazingly and indescribably, however, until late 1986 these repeated requests had fallen upon deaf ears. Somehow, the lucidly-demonstrated need for modern organic battle group and theater airborne electronic reconnaissance capabilities consistently failed to be translated into actual assets.
Some feel this benign neglect of the VQ capability was primarily due to the age-old unkept promise by the “national sensors” to provide tactical commanders with near real-time operational and technical intelligence data. Others feel it was primarily reluctance on the part of the “hard kill” advocates to recognize the electronic warfare “soft kill” as an integral part of their sensor and weapon suite. In other words, they failed specifically to understand and/or appreciate the force multiplier effect of airborne electronic reconnaissance. Without the explicit support of the “hard kill” bomb, droppers and missile shooters in the U.S. Navy, the miniscule VQ community cannot separately garner the support necessary to obtain and maintain state-of-the-art aircraft platforms and sensors. If the old Navy saying “community size translates to the health and well being of the capability” is true, then it is no wonder the very small VQ program appears terminally ill!
At the moment, the Navy has a nucleus of well trained and motivated personnel with which to conduct the airborne electronic reconnaissance mission. These individuals fully understand the significance of Thomas Jefferson’s words “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” Specifically, as of February 1987, 210 airborne electronic reconnaissance personnel had died in the line of duty. Without strong and immediate support for the VQ community, 44 years of history, tradition and urgently required operational capability will rapidly cease to exist in the U.S. Navy.
This history is dedicated to those two hundred men who gave their lives under hostile fire and in aircraft accidents while involved in airborne electronic reconnaissance in the service of their country. Memories of their ultimate sacrifice and dedication will bear the VQ community through the lean years.
“Greater love hath no man, that he give up his life for others.”
The author is grateful to CAPTs Jack Taylor and “J.D.” Meyer who took the time to make corrections to the first draft, and to provide photographs, newspaper clippings and their personal remembrances to this effort. Other individuals who provided significant data inputs and/or photographs were: MCPO Bill Dickson, USN(Ret); Winton Lowery, Pete Petersen and Chuck Christman, who were with VQ-1/2 as REWSON employees; LT George Phillips; Rex Glasby; LCDR Dick McBurnett; CAPT Bob Christman; CAPT Ivan Hughes; Bob Phillips; CDR Don Hubbard, USN(Ret); Freeman Dias; Roy Grossnick, Naval Aviation Historian; and Mike Walker of the Navy Operational Archives. Also, my wife Lou contributed significantly to this project with her patient proofreading expertise and encouragement during severe periods of Rhode Island wintertime “cabin fever”.
Additionally, the author wishes to cite the following publications as sources for his research:
Bamfort, James. The Puzzle Palace. Houghton Mifflin Company: Boston, 1982.
Carroll, John M. Secrets of Electronic Espionage. E.P. Dutton and Company: New York, 1966.
Infield, Glenn B. Unarmed and Unafraid. The MacMillan Company: London, 1970.
Price, Alfred. The History of U.S. Electronic Warfare, Volume I. The Murray
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