Echoes of the Vietnam War

EP32: TOPGUN: Call Sign “Wildman”

Release Date: July 19, 2022

The United States Navy Fighter Weapons School — better known as TOPGUN — was established in 1969. Early TOPGUN graduates fanned out across the Navy’s fighter squadrons to share what they had learned about dogfighting, and the results were dramatic: according to the Navy, its kill-to-loss ratio against the North Vietnamese MiGs saw a sixfold improvement. In this episode you’ll hear from a real TOPGUN graduate, a veteran who flew 150 combat missions in Vietnam.

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Echoes of the Vietnam War


HOST: [00:00:28] Between March of 1965 and November of 1968, the United States lost nearly 1000 aircraft in Operation Rolling Thunder. The Chief of Naval Operations at the time wanted to understand why. So in March of 1969, during a halt in the bombing campaign against North Vietnam, the United States Navy Fighter Weapons School, better known as “TOPGUN,” was established at Naval Air Station Miramar in California. The school’s purpose was to train fighter air crews at the graduate level in all aspects of fighter weapons systems, including tactics, techniques, procedures, and doctrine. TOPGUN graduates fanned out across the Navy’s air wings to instruct other fighter pilots in what they had learned at Miramar. By the time bombing resumed in North Vietnam, most Navy squadrons had a TOPGUN graduate among them. The results were dramatic. According to the Navy, its kill to loss ratio against the North Vietnamese MiGs jumped from about 2.5-to-1, to more than 12-to-1. In today’s show, we bring you an interview with a real TOPGUN graduate. Captain Denis Faherty piloted F-4 Phantoms during the Vietnam War. Stationed aboard the USS Kitty Hawk, he flew 150 combat missions in eight months. And while he’s no Tom Cruise, he has gone bar hopping with Tom Cruise. Stick around. From the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, Founders of The Wall, this is Echoes of the Vietnam War. I’m your host, Michael Croan, bringing you stories of service, sacrifice, and healing from people who still feel the impact of that conflict… Nearly 50 years later. This is Episode 32: “TOPGUN Call Sign: Wildman.” Denis Faherty, grew up in New York City, went to college in Pennsylvania, and then spent 39 years in the Navy. VVMF’s Jim Knotts, an Air Force Academy graduate and veteran of the first Gulf War, sat down with Captain Faherty to talk about his experiences. The two had just seen the new “Top Gun” movie together and they were pretty excited about it. Jim wanted to get Captain Faherty’s thoughts on the original, along with some stories.

KNOTTS: [00:03:10] Why don’t you tell me a little bit about seeing the original “Top Gun” movie?

FAHRETY: [00:03:14] It was pretty spectacular as far as the Navy was concerned, at Naval Air Station Miramar, where it was filmed. We had a year or so advance warning that this was going to happen, and we never expected that it would turn out the high quality that it did. Um, I had several friends that actually participated in the filming to represent the bogey pilots and the bandits and all of those things that, uh, are part of the movie. And I did get a phone call one day in 1985, and as I was working in my office, a couple of my buddies were on the phone and they say, hey, uh, Wildman, can you come over to TOPGUN? We’re going to go out drinking with these two actors, Tom Cruise and Anthony Edwards, and we’re going to start at the Officer’s Club. Well, we did, and I’ll tell you what, Jim, they were the nicest gentlemen you ever want to meet. And they were ecstatic. They had all gotten rides in the F-14 in the back seat. And the only person not to get sick was – Tom Cruise.

KNOTTS: [00:04:24] Well, I don’t I know he’s a private pilot now. I don’t know if he was if he had his private pilot’s license at that time, but obviously he’s, he likes to fly.

FAHRETY: [00:04:31] He’s, uh, aerodynamically, uh, adapted. So let’s put it that way.

KNOTTS: [00:04:37] Okay, so I got to ask if you went out drinking with Tom Cruise and Anthony Edwards. Uh, you got to tell us those stories.

FAHRETY: [00:04:46] Well, again, two of the nicest guys you ever want to meet… And when we left the Officer’s Club and left Naval Air Station Miramar, we went to a local community in La Jolla, California, which is a pretty nice area. And it was amazing how many women looked at those two guys but didn’t look at us. I was just dumbfounded for that because, I mean, didn’t they know we were Navy fighter pilots? And coincidentally, again, this was 1985. Um, the Navy officer who was the participant in the movie, uh, to make sure all of the military aspects of it were correct and not to generate a lot of phony, uh, situations that really military people would pick up in a minute. His name is Pete Pettigrew, and his call sign is “Viper.” And what they did in the movie, if you remember the first movie, is they, uh, they had Tom Skerritt, the actor, he played Viper.

KNOTTS: [00:05:50] He was a commander of TOPGUN…

FAHRETY: [00:05:51] He was the commander of TOPGUN. And he his call sign was Viper. Pete Pettigrew, the real Viper. Uh, he, uh, he flew with my squadron in Vietnam, and he shot down a MiG 21. And, uh, coincidentally, they put him in the movie in a, in a second… Not even a role he had he had some words where he walked into the officer’s club with, uh, Kelly McGillis and sat down with her. And by the way, the Kelly McGillis character is, uh, from a real person that existed, and her name was Christine Fox, and she, uh, and her call sign was “Legs” because she was a very, very tall woman, beautiful and brilliant. She was a PhD, and she worked a lot with our human factors departments and things. And so, um, we kind of fed the, uh, the beast for characters, acronyms, call signs and all that kind of stuff.

KNOTTS: [00:06:52] And, uh, so you started off this night out on the town at the “O” Club, at…

FAHRETY: [00:07:01] The Officer’s Club, at Naval Air Station Miramar.

KNOTTS: [00:07:03] Okay, which has a reputation of its own.

FAHRETY: [00:07:06] It does indeed.

KNOTTS: [00:07:08] And so when the movie came out, you went to see the movie? Of course… What were your impressions of the first movie?

FAHRETY: [00:07:15] It was unbelievable. I’d never seen a movie, uh, like that, uh, with the spectacular photography. I mean, that was the thing that jumped out right away. The air-to-air photography being as accurate as it was and filmed as professionally as it was, was in a different, uh, different category of success because that immediately gave credibility to knuckleheads like me and the rest of the squadrons going, hey, that was pretty good. There is a little bit of comment, of course, about some of the low-altitude maneuvering because of, uh, realizing it’s a it’s a work of art as a movie. Uh, those altitudes are very unrealistic and illegal and but, you know, you you package it in, well, you’re in combat and there are no rules. So, uh, but it was pretty spectacular stuff. And you could tell at that point in 1985-86 that it was not computer generated because we didn’t have a big computer, uh, presence in that era.

KNOTTS: [00:08:20] Well, that’s great. So you and I, uh, got to go see “Top Gun: Maverick” together. And what did you think of the sequel?

FAHRETY: [00:08:29] Probably ten times better. I mean, it was now better than the original. I think so, uh. However, now with the “Top Gun: Maverick,” they are able to incorporate some pretty sophisticated adjustments through a computer generated programs that are unbelievably realistic. I mean, I think I commented to you as we were leaving the theater saying, this is a great movie, but they had to modify a few laws of physics in the generation of some of those maneuvers and some of those scenes, but it worked out perfectly well.

KNOTTS: [00:09:08] They had a more, um, aerial footage and more aircraft involved and a lot more actual flying in “Top Gun: Maverick” that they did the original. So what did you think of the flying aspects?

FAHRETY: [00:09:21] It still was pretty spectacular. The F-18 Hornet is a wonderful aircraft. That was the replacement for the F-14 Tomcat. Tomcat was the star of “Top Gun” one and the Hornet is “Top Gun” two, because that is still the mainstream fighter aircraft in the Navy. And it’s a combined multi, multi-mission aircraft with fighter pilot capability, which is dog-fighting-type environment. And it’s very good at that. Uh, and also it’s an attack aircraft with very sophisticated computer systems for getting bombs on target, which is.

KNOTTS: [00:09:55] What they did in the movie.

FAHRETY: [00:09:56] They did.

KNOTTS: [00:09:57] But your Tomcat made an appearance in the second movie, too.

FAHRETY: [00:10:00] I know… There’s only one country that F-14s were sold to besides the United States, and that’s Iran. And as soon as I saw the plane, they had not said what country they were in, so I said… Iran. And, uh, I was designated, uh, when I was a flight instructor in the F-14s to be an instructor for our Iranian air crews. So I flew with an Iranian pilot for about six months and got to know him very well. Very, very good pilot. And, you know, unfortunately, he didn’t do very well in the revolution. Uh, but there are still F-14s flying today in Iran. Not many, but they’re flying.

KNOTTS: [00:10:39] Okay. So why don’t we just start a little bit about, uh, how you came into the Navy and, uh, how you ended up in Vietnam?

FAHRETY: [00:10:47] Well, I went to a liberal arts college in Pennsylvania from 1964 to 1968. And the draft was very, very specific about who got deferments and who didn’t. And one of the deferments was college education or actively pursuing a degree in an accredited college. And so it kept us out of… It kept us out of the draft. And, um, you were at risk if you failed out of college or graduated. Uh, they notify your local draft board very, very quickly. So knowing that, uh, and knowing the fact that recruiters came to the campuses looking for, uh, people that are interested and any college, accredited college, is a is a target-rich environment for, uh, you know, people that are fit the profile of being capable of of qualifying in aircraft and things of that nature. Let me back up a moment. Um, my father was in the Navy in World War II, and he fought in the Pacific. And so my whole youth growing up, uh, he would tell stories about the Navy, you know, and he would tell me he was what we call the black shoe. He, uh, he was a surface warfare officer. However, every story was always backed up with. And, you know, these aviators, these fighter pilots, these attack pilots flying off the carriers, they were the guys that won the war. So you get all of that type of, uh, brainwashing in a positive sense about what the Navy had to offer. So, uh, they came to our campus, I guess my junior year…You took some tests and, um, they would give you an instantaneous, you know, answer in a piece of paper saying, okay, you’re qualified to do this, this and this if you choose to. So the Navy recruiter was the first one on campus before the other services arrived.

FAHRETY: [00:12:53] And so I was obviously going to be oriented towards the Navy. And I was. They gave me a date to start in April 1969 to report down to Pensacola. And my father, uh, was able to swear me in as an aviation Officer Candidate. Aviation Officer Candidate School, AOCS, is run by Marine Corps drill instructors. And I can tell you right now the names of my drill instructors. And it’s 54 years later, Sergeant Godwin and Gunnery Sergeant Schuitt the most the most angry, uh, inspiring men you’d ever want to meet in your life. And, uh, over a 16-week period, we started our AOCS class with about 45 students. And 16 weeks later we had 21. And that’s the attrition rate. But the attrition rate is based on something called DOR, which means Drop On Request. Those are the magic words. If you simply cannot take any more. Of what they’re trying to instill in you. You can just simply say “I DOR,” And then there are no more questions asked. You’re out. However, your draft board was immediately notified. And so from that position, you were very focused and motivated to be as successful as you could during that time. Now, coming from a coed college in the mountains of Pennsylvania, what they put us through is something that altered every aspect of my life…

KNOTTS: [00:14:39] It was transformative…

FAHRETY: [00:14:39] Absolutely transformative in my entire future. We didn’t do any flying in that 16 weeks. We did do a lot of academics, but it was mostly physical training, marching, listening to drill instructors who in reality are absolutely brilliant, um, um, judges of character and, and attitude. And, and these are all veterans from Vietnam, and most of them were significant veterans from Khe San, which is a largest battle of Marine Corps fought in Vietnam.

KNOTTS: [00:15:14] Well, they had a very specific job. In 16 weeks.

FAHRETY: [00:15:17] They did.

KNOTTS: [00:15:19] They had to turn you from a civilian into a Naval Officer, right, in 16 weeks.

FAHRETY: [00:15:25] And they they did.

KNOTTS: [00:15:27] And so once you got your bars right, uh, you were commissioned a Naval Ensign. Correct. And you were identified as being on a flight training path. Correct. Okay. So you went to flight school?

FAHRETY: [00:15:43] Uh, I did, uh, you had a certain amount. You had about four months of flight school at Naval Air Station Pensacola. The base you were already at, which is the cradle of naval aviation. And you would start with a lot of the basics and then you start flying basic airplane. We flew a UC-45J, which we affectionately called the “Bugsmasher,” because it really couldn’t go much faster than a bug, but a World War II-era, twin-prop engine, uh, very slow aircraft. And a lot of that was to learn navigation skills, some very, very basic radar skills, but general orientation, again, testing you throughout the program to see if you’re the quality of individual that will be successful. They want you to be successful because now we’re getting into the big dollars. Then we transitioned to uh, uh, twin-seat jet engines for low-level navigation, which is a whole different world going 360 miles an hour, which conveniently is six miles a minute, because that helps you in ground navigation, to identify… This is a whole new world of low altitude. And so that’s that’s an eye opener. But they’re also trying to decide now what type of Navy aircraft do we think this person is best suited for…

FAHRETY: [00:17:06] Goes out of flight school at that point. And growing up in New York City and going to school in Pennsylvania and not doing very much traveling in my life at that point, um, I really, really wanted to go to San Diego. And so I knew I had to get some pretty good grades. So I ended up second in my class and was able to pick San Diego… And, and fly fighters. F-4s. Knowing, knowing that during the Vietnam era, the Vietnam War in particular, we really only sent um, West Coast squadrons to Vietnam – initially… You know, during the, uh, the final, uh, 1972 invasion from the North, we did start sending some East coast, uh, aircraft carriers, but, uh, traditionally the East Coast carriers would go to the Mediterranean. And that used to always be the joke among the West Coast fighter guys and the East Coast fighter guys. You’re going to Majorca, you’re going to Germany, and we’re going to, uh, Hanoi and Haiphong. But we were very proud of that. And so that, uh, going to California was just an absolute dream.

KNOTTS: [00:18:17] And so you arrived at a squadron in San Diego or was the squadron already deployed, or how did you get to the coast of Vietnam?

FAHRETY: [00:18:27] As soon as I, uh, received my wings, uh, excuse me, my certification, we call it NATOPS qualification in 19, December 1970. Uh. That they gave me a three year set of orders to VF 114, The Aardvarks, and they had just returned from Vietnam. They had just come off a nine-month deployment to Vietnam. And they were in their what they call a “Stand Down” period. After you return from combat flying in Vietnam, you would typically get a month off. Uh, and it’s not just for you flyers. I mean, the real people that need the time off are the are the troops, the men. And you’re getting all the war stories. It was most advantageous to pay attention… Because it really is the voice of experience. And I can honestly say I learned more about fighter aviation in the Officer’s Club than I did in the airplane, at that point. People like me in that group had zero combat missions, and all the guys I flew with had 300, 350 combat missions.

KNOTTS: [00:19:38] When did the ship arrive in Vietnam?

FAHRETY: [00:19:40] Well, it show up one Monday morning at the ship. We weren’t supposed to go to Vietnam for about a month and a half. And captain comes on the 1MC and says, you know, attention, Kittyhawk sailors, uh, we have a change of plans. We’re leaving for Vietnam in three days.

HOST: [00:20:04] We’ll be back with more of Jim Knott’s interview with Captain Denis Faherty after a short break. As you probably know by now, this year we’re celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. To commemorate this milestone, every day at 3 p.m. eastern, we read the name of every wall honoree who died on that date. This is in addition to the live in person reading of the names that will be held in Washington, D.C., beginning on November 7th. You can visit for more information about the daily virtual reading of the names and about the in person event. For 40 years, VMF has led the way to help heal our nation. Remember those who gave all and honor all who served. Our new Legacy Endowment will ensure that we can continue honoring Vietnam veterans for the next 40 years and beyond. We launched the Legacy Endowment with a $500,000 matching gift campaign, the Legacy Challenge. Each new outright gift or gift established through a will will be matched up to 50%, with a maximum of $50,000 matched per gift. All qualifying gifts established or newly identified before November 12th of this year are eligible for the match. Learn more at The Wall That Heals is an exact replica of the wall at three-quarters scale that travels to communities all across America. The Wall That Heals and the Mobile Education center that travels with it will be in Eagan, Minnesota, July 21st through 24, and Winsted, Minnesota, July 28th through 31. To see the rest of this year’s tour schedule, and to learn how you can bring The Wall That Heals to your town, visit In February of 1972. Denis Faherty was a lieutenant, junior grade, and an F-4 fighter pilot aboard the USS Kitty Hawk stationed in San Diego. He thought he had about six weeks before shipping out to Vietnam, but new intelligence about a massive gathering of North Vietnamese forces near the DMZ changed those plans. The crew were given just three days to make the ship combat ready, and it was anchors aweigh.

FAHRETY: [00:22:50] And so we rock it over, so fast, and the ship, when you’re going a speed of 30 knots, there is a lot more movement on the ship. And it’s it’s what they call a Dutch roll. And so it’s, it’s doing up and down and it’s doing right and left and it’s extremely nausea-inducing. Well, we’ve got a lot of new people on the ship, a lot of young men who have never been on cruise before, and literally thousands of them got very sick and were vomiting in all the heads, which are Navy restrooms. Um, and they couldn’t do anything. The ship itself, a 1000 foot long attack aircraft carrier, smelled of vomit for two weeks.

KNOTTS: [00:23:45] When did you start flying combat missions?

FAHRETY: [00:23:47] Um, I flew my very first combat mission March 9th of 1972.

KNOTTS: [00:23:53] Now it’s real.

FAHRETY: [00:23:53] Now it’s real. And because you already had stories about, um, who, who and what was going on, we knew when an airplane got shot down. We lost 350 aircraft in a three-year period shot down by the enemy, not mechanical. And the combined total? That’s just the Navy. Uh, the combined total for the Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force was 2,300 aircraft were lost in that three-year period. And, um, so with those numbers involved. You are now realize it was real.

KNOTTS: [00:24:33] What was the mission?

FAHRETY: [00:24:35] Well, what? They thank God they did it this way is they would in… off Vietnam, in the Gulf of Tonkin, there were two stations. One was called Yankee Station up north, and one was called Dixie station down south. And the Down South station would exclusively do flight operations in South Vietnam, even though all of Vietnam was incredibly dangerous. I mean, getting shot at by not only bad guys, but good guys, people – everybody had guns – It was just, you had to be on your toes whenever you flew over Vietnam. However, South Vietnam was a bit of a safe haven because of, you know, there was a lot of not a lot of activity from the NVA, which was the North Vietnamese Army. There was a lot of activity with Viet Cong, which were guerrillas. They were two separate armies. And um, so in South Vietnam, you, uh, didn’t face there were no surface to air missiles initially. The SA II, the Guideline, there were none of those. There was some AAA which is anti-aircraft artillery. The higher calibers, you know, normally it was 23 millimeter and 37 millimeter, but not the higher ones. And no radar-guided-type AAA, and you had machine guns, which are very inaccurate and very difficult to shoot down an airplane. So they started us out for five days of flying missions, only in South Vietnam being work with a forward air control. The forward air controllers were Army and Air Force primarily, and they were good.

FAHRETY: [00:26:24] These are guys that would fly propeller-driven Cessnas at 1,000 feet, and they would see in the jungle all kinds of activity in the areas that they would send them to that needed to be dealt with. And these guys would mark a target. And we the F-4 carried six Mark 82, which were 500-pound bombs. We carried 3,000 pounds of bombs. We knew how to bomb. We had trained to it. It’s a little different in combat. You know, we had a we had a policy where in training we would drop one bomb at a time… So we could get the technique down. In Vietnam, you get a confirmed target and drop all six at the same time, and you get out of there because, you know, the multiple-run environment being predictable is one of the main ways to get shot down, or get shot up, or both. So we did South Vietnam for about about five days. Everybody in the air wing, all the now all the different squadrons are doing their missions, but they’re doing it in South Vietnam. And then we started moving up a little bit. The ship started moving up toward Yankee Station, which is pretty much off of, uh, Haiphong, but about 75 miles in the Gulf of Tonkin. And so we were only bombing in the southern environment of, uh, North Vietnam, and which is still not too many surface-to-air missiles and no MiGs, no MiG aircraft.

FAHRETY: [00:27:57] And in South Vietnam, there were really never any MiGs until after the war. And so now you started going up in in risk as to what you were doing. And that’s, uh, then on Easter Sunday 1972, which, uh, was March 30th, the North Vietnamese decided to invade the South, and they had 200,000 troops and 350 tanks came over the border. Now… So now we’ve got a and this is the reason we left port a month and a half early, because this is what was predicted. Uh, now they were coming over the demilitarized zone into the northern part of South Vietnam on the coast. Uh, Quang Tri. Quang Tri, Hue, uh, Dong Ha, all of these different communities. And they were starting. That’s where I saw my first basically red Chinese tank. Now, tanks are, uh, very vulnerable to bombing and, uh, however. Bombing for an F-4 fighter crew is not, uh, our forte. We are very fortunate if our bombs hit the ground. And. But the accuracy in the F-4 Phantom, because of the bombing system that it had, was very primitive and not very accurate. The people that had the great bombing systems were the A-7s, the A-4s, the A-6s, their attack aircraft. When you have attack in your name, Attack Squadron, you’re a bomber. If you have a Fighter Squadron, you’re a fighter. You fight other airplanes primarily. But they found out very, very early that the F-4 Phantom was a very versatile aircraft.

FAHRETY: [00:29:58] And in in Vietnam, we basically had a dozen different missions… Uh, bombing, which we hated because it added 3,000 pounds to the aircraft and our number one concern, 24 hours a day flying fighters is: gas. Fuel. So we’re always looking for the tanker. We’re always concerned about weight. After the invasion from the north over the DMZ with this massive amount of troops and armor, we went to a traditional role of interdiction of the supplies that were going to these troops in the South, and we would do that via Alpha Strikes, and Alpha Strike would have typically 25 aircraft in it. All varieties. Electronic jammers, uh, attack A-6s attack, A-7s, and fighters to protect them. And we’d all have our separate mission, but we’d all have one target, like, this is a, uh, petroleum storage area. And, uh, these are typical throwback World War II-type targets that you had to get because by destroying the infrastructure and the supply line that that has been proven, the logistics destroys armies without supplies. They’re doomed. And so, uh, we would go after those types of targets in a big way. But that’s when they started shooting some really big stuff at us, because now we’re we’re bombing their country. The North Vietnamese knew where we were coming from, so they would over-protect these high value targets. So when you got in the area of the target, they knew where you were going. They would basically have a three-tier level of anti-aircraft artillery, surface-to-air missiles, two different kinds of surface-to-air missiles.

FAHRETY: [00:31:57] And a third one showed up, a Manpad missile, which is a handheld missile, not very effective against high-altitude fighters, but effective against the low guys. So what you would do is you would see this missile come up and you would wait and you’d move your nose. You say you pull your nose up. Now, if you see the missile, do that… Pull lead on you and you drop your nose and it does that. That’s on you. Now here’s how you have to defeat the missile: You wait, you watch it. Because, what happens? It was the SA II is a two-stage missile… Drops off the first stage. That gets it going real fast. Now the next portion is called the flying telephone pole, because that’s what the size of it is. And it’s coming up really fast, mach five. And so you put it at your 2:00 or 10:00, and as soon as you can see the black nose of this rocket exhaust. You turn into it as hard as you can. Now that sounds anti-intuitive. Pulling into the missile. But see, it can’t. It has to pull lead to hit you. And so that is what it does. It pulls lead, and it hopes that 300 pound warhead either hits you directly or. It. It it. I’ve seen them break in half. They can’t handle the turn. They’ll try to handle the turn.

KNOTTS: [00:33:24] What goes through your mind when you’re on a combat mission like that? What are you thinking? Are you scared or are you excited?

FAHRETY: [00:33:33] You know, there are half a dozen targets that were hell on Earth. I mean, it would unbelievably defended. That was Hanoi, parts of Haiphong. I remember my very first combat hop up North Vietnam. We were going to a fairly, um, highly-defended area. So we go find the tanker, we take on the extra gas, and you’re listening very intently. You’ve got some combat frequencies you can listen to to just see what’s going on. Try not to talk too much, uh, to jam the frequency. After you finish tanking in the area you’re tanking, you start heading towards North Vietnam. And at some point it’s, this is summertime, 1972. It’s very hazy – a lot. It’s crummy weather – a lot. And but you see North Vietnam for the first time and it is just like you imagined with your maps and charts. And, you know, the the briefs you receive from the Intel. And so in my case, uh, you know, you had to identify feet wet or feet dry. And so you always announce when your feet dry, that means you’re over the coast of North Vietnam. Then you’re heading to your target. Uh, when we got right before we got the target, a lot of AAA could pick that up. Those are the black puffs of smoke that they’re shooting at you, and. But we’re at an altitude of about, um, uh, 18,000 to 20,000 feet where, uh, it’s not real effective up at that high, but it can be. And so in my case, we start getting involved in a lot of people talking on the radio, because now we’re looking for MiGs.

FAHRETY: [00:35:12] We don’t have any bombs on that mission. We are what they call a MigCAP, C-A-P After every every mission is carrier air patrol. So MiG carrier air patrol. So we’re looking for MiGs. So I’ll remember I heard all these guys talking about and a couple of guys got hit. Got hit minor hits. Not.. They didn’t have to eject… But I was trying to talk. I couldn’t talk my, my, my mouth, my tongue was so dry. And so, you know, I couldn’t. And so, uh. There is, there is. There’s fear, but not fear of, uh, being killed or, uh, having to eject – That’s not that for – this is the fear of looking bad to your squadron mates or not doing your job because they’re unmerciful and it’s, you know, it’s it’s it’s shoot on sight. However, you have to confirm that it’s a bad guy because there are so many American airplanes out there right there in that second and some, some signs, some Air Force aircraft would show up for whatever reason. And so you had to make sure it was a bad guy. Well, you knew if they were MiGs in your area because the other airplanes would be telling you. And so, uh, once you got involved in doing that kind of stuff, you tend to calm down. At least I did. You know, it did get easier and easier, but what started weighing on your mind is the political ramifications of what was going on around you. Meaning? Uh. The push for peace talks and that kind of thing and the targets we were flying at.

FAHRETY: [00:37:02] And the results we were getting. You really started questioning, is this worth it? And in reality, you know, it was not… It was not worth it. During a three-year period. I said earlier that the Navy had lost over 300 aircraft. Well, they actually lost 532 aircraft in that three-year period. Um, in that environment, we had 644 aviators killed, missing or POW. The total fixed wing loss, as I said from all the services, was over 2,400. Um, and those things started playing on your mind because, again, you’re seeing the targeting and the fact that you’re not being terribly effective with the type of tactics we had because of the air defenses they had. Uh, realizing that at the height of the war in 1968 on the ground in Vietnam, South Vietnam, we had 536,000 troops… In 1972, we had 24,000. So that is a major… We were really not involved in that much combat in South Vietnam in 1972. We were on the ground, correct. Because we had it was a terminology out there, Vietnamization of the war. And so we were not involved very actively until they came over the border. When they invaded the South, well, we did get more involved in it, but a lot of our involvement was by our advisors. There were a lot more advisors in action, combat troops. So that that started creating a problem in your mind about, um, is this whole thing worth it? Because we’re getting out of here and, uh, at best, at best, it’s going to be a neutral.

FAHRETY: [00:38:58] A neutral fight and we lost 58,000 folks killed here. Neutral outcome, a neutral outcome. That was the best! We had, um, uh, a kill ratio in World War II, In the Pacific of 19 to 1, we shot down 19 aircraft for every one that they shot down. Air to air. In Vietnam, we had prior to 1972, this is typically, um, ’66, ’67, ’68, ’69…. The kill ratio was 2 to 1. We only shot down two MiGs for every one of ours was shot down air-to-air. We had a lot shot down, surface-to-air, but air-to-air, and you had to take that 2 to 1 kill ratio was across the board for Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force. We weren’t used to that. We even had in the Korean War… Basically, in the first six months, we almost wiped out the entire North Korean Air Force. Well, we also found out that putting, keeping these missiles on the aircraft and doing catapults and arrested landings, it kind of beats up the electronics pretty well. Um, and so, uh, that’s another issue that came out of the development of TOPGUN is you have to learn the systems and how to employ it in a maneuvering environment. And that’s why in the summer of ’72, we ended up, the Navy only, ended up with a 12 to 1 kill ratio at the end of the war. And that TOPGUN had been in existence at that point for three years.

KNOTTS: [00:40:43] Um, well, so how long were you there for your combat tour?

FAHRETY: [00:40:52] Uh, we left, got there, uh, first week in March, I guess it was. And, uh, we left, uh, third week in November.

KNOTTS: [00:41:02] How many missions? Combat missions did you fly?

FAHRETY: [00:41:05] 150.

KNOTTS: [00:41:07] 150. In eight months.That’s, uh…

FAHRETY: [00:41:08] Correct.

FAHRETY: [00:41:08] I was flying, um, 2 to 3 a day. Uh, in addition to doing those alert fives, I mean, in that entire 8 to 10 month period, I never got more than two hours of sleep successively. But we were young and indestructible, as you can imagine. But it bounced back.

KNOTTS: [00:41:28] So in that eight-month period, um, uh, did you lose guys in your squadron?

FAHRETY: [00:41:33] Yes we did. Uh, we lost, uh, the first the first crew was kind of a, you know, a shocker for for me, because he was a very close friend. Um, Joe Greenleaf and Clemie McKinney was in his back seat, and they were, um, it was right after the North Vietnamese came over the border and they were in bombing runs. They were on a bombing run. They had five AAA rounds strike the aircraft in, in the cockpit area. So when they hit the ground, crashed into the ground at 600 miles an hour. They were vaporized and, um. Then through the summer when we really started doing a lot of work in August, our commanding officer had just taken over the squadron. He was the executive officer the whole time flying. I flew a bunch with him. He, um. He had, This was his third combat tour to Vietnam. He was a commander, an O5, and he, uh. Like to conserve gas. The rest of us were aware of gas, but we wouldn’t conserve it. Now the way you conserve gas is you go slow. He liked to go slow over, uh, hostile territory. Well, what we found out. What limited intelligence we have is that he was hit with a surface to air missile that night, uh, near Haiphong. Probably going slow. We didn’t get his remains back until the ’90s.

FAHRETY: [00:43:10] Now between the two, between the front seat and the back seat of that aircraft, they had seven children. The skipper had five, in the back seater, O.J. had two. So that’s another eye opener. So now we’ve lost… We have we’ve lost 20 percent of our squadron right there in those two, uh, shootdowns. Um, you get replacements pretty quick. But, you know, there’s a cycle of, uh, getting getting them acclimated, getting them combat-ready because you just don’t throw these guys, these new guys, into combat right away. You know, we were all, very idealistic people going in on the front end of the Vietnam War because it was exciting. We’d never done anything like this. Your father, your fathers and grandfathers did something like this. They they glorified war to a certain extent, which I certainly have never done since going to war. And so you wanted to give it a try and, you know, you wanted to make a difference for at least your squadron. And then it didn’t take long to figure out, you can’t do that… With the government doing what they’re doing. With the restrictions, the rules. They, uh… They didn’t want to win. And they, they, they made it… Uh, they made it perfectly clear. And we were the cannon fodder.

KNOTTS: [00:44:38] Well, and this conversation is more than 50 years after that. Right. Um, have your perspectives changed about any of that? And if so, how?

FAHRETY: [00:44:54] Well, the, the change is based on education… Maturing, maturing in life, becoming a senior officer, and reading extensively the aftermath of the Vietnam War. And things they found out were going on that we were not aware of at our levels. Uh, there was so much. Government misrepresentation and lying that, it changed my mind as to the trust level you put in government, especially back then. I mean, I never questioned anything about the government in my junior years in the Navy until probably ten years after combat. When you start finding out things, as in the book Dereliction of Duty, the amount of money that we spent Rolling Thunder was the earlier major bombing campaign in 1965 and ’66, I think it was. And, uh, the CIA, after the war, did a, uh, a study that compared what it cost the United States to do $1 of damage to the enemy with Rolling Thunder. What did it take? In 1966? It took $9.60 of the United States money to do $1 of damage. We were fighting a third-world country, Vietnam, North Vietnam. Was a third-world country. South Vietnam was a second-tier country. A little more, a little more, um. Uh, developed, but not North Vietnam. And we wasted our time with that. But in reality, we were fighting Russia and red China. And that’s the way the Cold War was. And and even though, you know, I was in the heart of the Cold War and as an active duty person…

FAHRETY: [00:47:05] Uh… The value of the way we did. These, um… These client wars. You know, we were fighting Russia.

KNOTTS: [00:47:21] Proxy Wars?

FAHRETY: [00:47:22] Yes, exactly. Uh. We knew that our lives really meant very little to the government, and that at that point you have to say, well, uh, I can’t, I can’t risk my squadron mate’s life. What I’ll do is fly as safe as I can and protect my my squadron mates as best I can. But I know we can’t win the war. And I knew that in that cruise we could not win the war. At any given time, I think we had 21… Was it 21 different aircraft carriers? Uh, fight in Vietnam at some time or another? And we had some air wings in 1963 and well, ’64 and ’65 come back with half of their airplane shot down, half of the air wing, gone. That’s like 40 plus aircraft. John McCain, John McCain was on the Bonhomme Richard, uh, when he got shot down in his A-4. Uh, half the air wing was shot down. They lost 40 percent of their pilots were killed in action. And at that point, those numbers, you just you became, you become… You becomes so disillusioned with it. I mean, we all came home, um, from Vietnam, just being extremely critical of the government first and the Navy second.

KNOTTS: [00:48:55] Having lost squadron mates, good friends and colleagues, and seeing these decisions out of the government and out of the Navy. You then went on to serve three decades. So, um. Why?

FAHRETY: [00:49:15] Well, uh. Adrenaline… And the kept giving me these, just, wonderful things.

KNOTTS: [00:49:24] Really, uh, you know, offers you can’t refuse. You can’t.

FAHRETY: [00:49:27] Then finally, I get the call in 2008… 2008, I get the phone call from the little old lady with sneakers in the basement of the Pentagon. And she says, “Captain, where do you want us to send your retirement orders? You’re eligible for Social Security. So you have to get out.” I said, okay.

KNOTTS: [00:49:48] So you, uh, your career spanned 1960…

FAHRETY: [00:49:53] Nine.

KNOTTS: [00:49:54] Nine.

FAHRETY: [00:49:54] To 2008.

KNOTTS: [00:49:55] To 2008.

FAHRETY: [00:49:56] Well, 2008 I was when I retired in 2008. I was the last Navy Vietnam combat veteran to retire from active duty.

KNOTTS: [00:50:05] Vietnam combat veteran.

FAHRETY: [00:50:07] Vietnam combat veteran, nobody else. There was still a doctor or lawyer. There was a lot a doctor and a lawyer still on active duty, but they weren’t in combat guys. So I retired.

KNOTTS: [00:50:17] After, uh, do the math. 30 or..

FAHRETY: [00:50:21] 39 years.

KNOTTS: [00:50:21] 39 years. That’s quite a run.

FAHRETY: [00:50:24] It was. It was, uh, you know, very exciting. The worst part were the losses. You know, I’ve got nine friends on The Wall.

KNOTTS: [00:50:33] Yeah. What’s it like when you go to The Wall now? You visit your your buddies that you know when you go to The Wall.

FAHRETY: [00:50:41] Yeah.

KNOTTS: [00:50:42] When did you go to The Wall? The first time?

FAHRETY: [00:50:45] I think it was ’87. Uh, and. It’s like 1:00 in the morning. I wanted to do it at night because I couldn’t… The stories I’ve heard, you know, from other friends that had been to The Wall were overwhelming. And it just brings back such memories. And as you walk up to it, as you walk up to The Wall for the first time, the letters… It start getting bigger and bigger because you know, when you’re back on, on coming towards it, you can see the names and then you go, oh Holy Christmas, that’s magnificent. That’s that was a big eye opener to see that.

KNOTTS: [00:51:35] So you looked up the nine names?

FAHRETY: [00:51:37] Yeah.

KNOTTS: [00:51:38] Um, did you leave anything for them?

FAHRETY: [00:51:40] I left an air medal. In Vietnam I was awarded nine, and so I left one.

KNOTTS: [00:51:52] And you gone back many times since then?

FAHRETY: [00:51:54] Yeah.

FAHRETY: [00:51:56] 58,281. You know, that’s a big chunk of your generation. And the vast majority of that are people under 30. Way under… Way under 30. And so it’s, um…. It’s just a sad, a sad state, especially for the young enlisted men and women, men primarily, you know, that just had their lives terminated. And in hindsight, you know, I’m 76 years old, and in hindsight, just think how much I enjoyed life in that time frame…. So you get you get philosophical as you get older.

HOST: [00:52:48] Captain Denis Faherty, US Navy, retired. Big thanks to Captain Faherty for sharing his story, and to Jim Knotts for conducting the interview. And to you for supporting the official podcast from the Founders of The Wall in Washington, DC. If you want to give us a little extra boost, tell a friend or two to check us out. Or better yet, leave us a rating or a review wherever you get your podcasts. That’s the most powerful way to help new listeners find us. We’ll be back in two weeks with more stories of service, sacrifice, and healing.

HOST: [00:53:23] See you then.

Echoes of the Vietnam War

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Full Interview with Denis Faherty

Echoes of the Vietnam War

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Echoes of The Vietnam War

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