A-4F SKYHAWK PILOT
US MARINE CORPS
MARINE ATTACK SQUADRON 211 (VMA-211)
CHU LAI AIRBASE
Ralph Byron Pappas was a USMC pilot who was killed during the Vietnam War, not while flying his precious Skyhawk but while being on the ground, serving as a Forward Air Controller for his brothers Marines. His family story was quite interesting. Peter D. Pappas (Papadimitropoulos) immigrated to the US from the village Solaki, Messinia in Greece in 1905, departing from Pireus, and settled in the Boston area. After arrival, he met Fannie Stefis, also Greek who lived in Manchester, MY and subsequently married. The couple had a child named James P. Pappas who was born in 1908 in Manchester, NH. The family returned to Greece in 1920 and settled in Vamos village in Crete, where James went to school for several years. Then, they returned to the US where James attended Boston Latin School, Harvard University and Tufts Medical School. He served as an Army Surgeon for thirty years, including WWII and Korea, and retired as a Colonel. He was a physician attached to Eisenhower Allied Expeditionary Force on D-Day. In addition, he received a medal from the Greek Government for his WWII service and was involved with the development of South Korea's Public Health system. James P. Pappas married Ann Cordelia MacLennan a Canadian of Scottish/English heritage and they had two children, Ralph Byron and James. Ralph Byron Pappas was born in Panama in 1940. He commonly was known as “Barney." After attending Francis C. Hammond High School, Alexandria, VA, he enlisted to the Marine Corps and served from 1959 to 1962 as a Corporal in HQ, MCB Quantico. In 1963 he attended the Platoon Leader Class and during 1964 he applied for the Marine Aviation Department. He began his training in Marine Aviation Training Support Group 22 in NAS Corpus Christi in Texas flying his advanced training in T-2 Buckeyes. During 1965 he was posted to Marine Air Group 33 where he received his operational training in A-4 Skyhawks and afterward he joined the 3rd Marine Air Wing. In 1966 he transferred to Fleet Marine Force Pacific and the 1st Marine Air Wing and posted for service in Vietnam, flying for VMA-211 Wake Avengers Squadron. During his tour of duty, he participated in more than 100 missions, supporting the Marines on the ground, flying mostly Close Air Support missions, from Chu Lai Air Base. His numerous missions earned him the Air Medal with 5 gold stars. According to the citation:
"For meritorious achievement in aerial flight as a designated Naval Aviator in Marine Attack Squadron 211 during combat support missions in support of the Republic of Vietnam against the insurgent communist guerrilla forces (Viet Cong) from 30 December 1966 to 24 January 1967. He contributed materially to the success of his squadron. His courage and devotion to duty in the face of hazardous flying conditions were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service."
On January 26, 1967, he was awarded the DISTINGUISHED FLYING CROSS for a daring CAS mission regarding a rescue mission of three downed Marine helicopters crews and passengers. According to the citation the DFC was awarded:
"For heroism and extraordinary achievement while participating in aerial flight as a pilot and flight leader of a jet attack aircraft section attached to and serving with Marine Attack Squadron TWO HUNDRED ELEVEN in the Republic of Vietnam on 26 January 1967. During a night air strike covering three downed helicopters, their crews and passengers, Captain Pappas, skilfully maneuvering his flight under flares in a target area, carried out daring bomb runs along the perimeter of the downed Marines in great danger of annihilation by an encircling communist force. Despite the ever-present threat of intense enemy automatic weapons fire and the hazardous flying conditions of extremely mountainous terrain in the immediate target area, Captain Pappas' strike contributed materially toward maintaining inviolate the defensive perimeter of the beleaguered Marines, and to their successful extraction at the advent of daylight. By accuracy and courageous conduct in the face of grave personal risk, he reflected that selfless devotion to duty so in keeping with the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service."
Above Left: Ralph Byron Pappas pose before entering his cockpit for another close air support mission of his colleagues on the ground over Vietnam. Before transferred for FAC duty on the ground 'Barney' as he was known to his brothers in arms awarded with the Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal w 4 Gold Stars, Purple Heart, National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal, Gold Star Lapel Button, Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal, Republic of Vietnam Meritorious Unit Citation. (James & Ted Pappas Collection)
Middle Left: Two U.S. Marine Corps Douglas A-4E Skyhawk of Marine Attack Squadron 211 (VMA-211) "Wake Island Avengers" refuel at Chu Lai airbase, Vietnam, in 1967. The aircraft on the right appears to be BuNo 150038 which was shot down by ground fire on 28 August 1967. Designated SATS, for short airfield for tactical support, the facility had been designed for areas where no airfield existed. The one at Chu Lai initially had a 4,000-foot runway, taxiways, a parking ramp and, later, a catapult and arrester gear. As one individual put it, Chu Lai eventually had everything a Navy carrier had except the water. A launching catapult was not immediately available, but Chu Lai had ample supplies of JATO (jet-assisted takeoff) bottles for an extra push on takeoff. These dry-fuel rockets were attached to the rear fuselage of each A-4 to give a five-second burn that generated 3,500 pounds of thrust. Using them cut the A-4’s takeoff distance in half. (USMC, further info https://www.historynet.com)
Below Left: VMA-211 A-4 Skyhawk at Chu Lai Air Base during 1 January 1968. The Corps’ air inventory in 1965 included the diminutive Douglas A-4 Skyhawk. Designed as a Navy shipboard attack airplane, the A-4 had the smallest possible airframe to assist stowage aboard carriers. By 1965, as the A-4E, the Skyhawk had become a highly capable warplane. The A-4E was armed with two internal 20mm cannons and could carry additional guns in external pods. With three stores stations available in the A-4C and five in the A-4E ‘Echo, Marine pilots could deliver approximately 8,500 pounds of ordnance–iron bombs weighing up to 1,000 pounds, napalm, Zuni semi-guided rockets, cluster bombs, and unguided rockets. The A-4 was fast, maneuverable and rugged, well able to survive combat in Vietnam, where anti-aircraft artillery and small arms were the enemy’s principal weapons (Jonathan Abel Collection (COLL/3611), Marine Corps Archives & Special Collections, further info https://www.historynet.com)
Photos & Profile: The first photo shows Barney during his Jet qualification training, flying T-2 Buckeyes. The next one is an inflight photo showing Barney at the controls of an A-4E Skyhawk on his way for a CAS mission. The fighter carries eight Mk.82 iron bombs and a full load of his 20mm cannon rounds, as well as a centerline tank (check profile above). The A4D-5 [A-4E] was a major upgrade to the A-4B & A-4C, including new Pratt & Whitney J52-P-6A engine with 8,400 lbf (37 kN) of thrust, strengthened airframe with two more weapon pylons (for a total of five), improved avionics, with TACAN, Doppler navigation radar, radar altimeter, toss-bombing computer, and AJB-3A low-altitude bombing system. Many later upgraded with the J52‑P‑8 engine with 9,300 lb (41 kN) thrust; 499 E model Skyhawka were built. The last photo is an official portrait photo of Ralph Byron Pappas. (Profile Copyright by Tom Cooper, photos by James and Ted Pappas Collection)
After completing his tour with the VMA-211 he opted for a Forward Air Control service. After his training, he entered III MAF (Marine Amphibious Force) a unit that was responsible for all Marines in the I Corp area of Vietnam during the war attached to India Company, 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines on March 30, 1967. That day was the day the Greek American Marine pass to eternity. According to the unit history
"In the late afternoon of 30 March 1967 India Company, 3/9 Marines began to set up its night defensive position near Hill 70, located about 8 kilometers northwest of Cam Lo and 4 kilometers southwest of Con Thien. As the platoons were establishing their ambush sites and outposts, the company command post and its security element came under automatic weapons fire from the advance guard of a reinforced NVA company. Although the assault was begun by a handful of NVA soldiers it grew rapidly as additional NVA troops, supported by artillery and mortar fire, moved in on the scattered Marines. The command group and its security element managed to establish a hasty defense while the bulk of the company consolidated and withdrew slightly to a more defensible location - but the hasty defense site was overrun before all the defenders could themselves withdraw. Friendly air and artillery support was brought to bear, and a reaction force was moved into the area but was unable to join India 3/9 until after dawn on 31 March. The 3/9 Operations Log contains the following entry: "1800 - Company I began receiving incoming mortar fire YD096652. I-2, 3, 4, and CP were hit with heavy 60mm mortar fire and small arms fire. The enemy advanced to friendly positions under the mortar fire and hit the units after lifting of the mortars. The enemy infiltrated friendly positions with friendly units suffering casualties 16 KIA, 52 WIA. 62 NVA KIA confirmed. 2 NVA captured." and there's also an entry from the following morning: "0850 - Company I reports that NVA's are walking around their position in a daze. They were instructed to try and capture the NVA. As the unit tried to capture NVA in their area the NVA put up enough resistance to make it dangerous to try to capture and were forced to shoot them. 6 NVA KIA confirmed." Although the Ops Log says there were 16 American dead, only 15 can be identified - most of them from the Command Group and its security element. They were H&S Co, 3rd Bn, 9th Marines Capt Ralph B. Pappas, Presidio, CA (Ground FAC) LCpl Roman R. Villamor, Warren, MI Pfc Donald W. Krick, Cleveland, OH I Co, 3rd Bn, 9th Marines Capt Michael P. Getlin, La Grange, IL, Company Commander (Navy Cross) 2ndLt John P. Bobo, Niagara Falls, NY, Platoon Leader (Medal of Honor) Cpl John L. Loweranitis, Du Bois, PA (Navy Cross) Cpl Walter J. Nerad, Maple Heights, OH Cpl David A. Siemon, Springdale, PA LCpl James E. Blevins, Empire, OH LCpl Larry H. Crumbaker, Salem, OH Pfc Albert G. Anter, Central Falls, RI Pfc Ruben M. Armenta, Pico Rivera, CA Pfc Edward E. Cannon, Avon Park, FL Pfc Frank H. Thomas, Pompano Beach, FL Pfc Wallace Williams, New York, NY ."
Jack Riley, 2nd Squad Leader, 2nd Platoon, India Company, 3rd Bn. 9th Marines during 1966 - 1967 remembered:
"Our company had been split into 3 separate units for the purpose of setting up night ambush positions. Capt. Pappas was with our CP Group which also included the 2nd and 3rd Squads of the 2nd Platoon. The NVA attacked our small unit on Hill 70 which became known as "Getlin's Corner" in honor of our CO Michael Getlin also KIA. I remember Capt. Pappas calmly attempting to call in air support for our greatly outnumbered Marines. Enemy mortars, heavy machine guns, and grenades were all over us as Capt. Pappas was mortally wounded. The Grunts had the utmost respect for our FAC because even though they were pilots, they were willing to spend months in the bush on the ground to provide us the very best air support possible. The Grunts of the "Flaming I" who survived Getlin's Corner will always remember our Marine brother Captain Ralph Byron Pappas."
Ralph Byron Pappas sacrifice will always be remembered from his Brother in Arms and his family making proud both American and Greek people.
Above Right: Skyhawk to Target: An ordnance-laden A-4E Skyhawk of Marine Attack Squadron 211 [VMA-211] streaks to a target just north of the demilitarized zone to blast a complex of enemy antiaircraft guns June 24 (As the Vietnam ground war increased in intensity, the Marine A-4 squadrons began piling up a high number of mission credits. The targets were only a few minutes’ flying time away from their base, hence pilots could fly multiple sorties in a single day. It became routine to reckon sortie totals by the thousands. The continual proximity of enemy troops to U.S. air bases occasionally resulted in A-4s dropping their ordnance almost before the pilots had retracted their wheels. North Vietnamese forces made numerous attempts to destroy or damage U.S. aircraft at their bases. Chu Lai was attacked on several occasions. During Operation Starlite in August 1965, the Skyhawks successfully flew to protect both their own ground troops and their base. (Jonathan Abel Collection (COLL/3611), Marine Corps Archives & Special Collections, further info by https://www.historynet.com)
Middle & Below Right: Marine Corps pilots are the only aviators in the U.S. military who are taught the basics of infantry tactics prior to flight school. This ensures every Marine is a rifleman. Though the chances of an aviator leading a platoon of infantry Marines are slim to none, there are cases where Marine pilots are embedded in infantry units. FACs are tasked out from the aviation field to directly support ground combat units. As the FAC, Pappas was in charge of directing close air support and other offensive air operations. The FACs typically are senior aviators who have spent at least two years in a fleet squadron. Pappas lost his life while directing close air support for his unit on the ground. The two photos above show Barney during his ground fighting or FAC training. In the last one, he is fully dressed in combat gear and his trusted M-16 rifle. (James & Ted Pappas Collection, further info by https://www.defense.gov)
Ralph Pappas along with his mother, Ann Cordelia MacLennan before he left for his Vietnam tour of duty. (James & Ted Pappas Collection)
James Peter Pappas, Ralph father, served as an Army Surgeon for thirty years, including WWII and Korea, and retired as a Colonel. He was a physician attached to Eisenhower Allied Expeditionary Force on D-Day. In addition, he received a medal from the Greek Government for his WWII service and was involved with the development of South Korea's Public Health system (James & Ted Pappas Collection).
The memorial plate of Captain Ralph Byron Pappas in Arlington National Cemetery. (https://www.findagrave.com)
The Medals awarded to the fallen hero, Captain Ralph Byron, Pappas, specofocaly the Air Medal (Left), the Purple Heart (Centre) and the Distinguished Flying Cross (Right). Below is a tribute made by his family showing a picture of Barney and an A-4 Skyhawk scale model. (James & Ted Pappas Collection).
1. Dimitrios Vassilopoulos correspondence with James Pappas, brother of Cpt. Ralph Byron Pappas.
2. Dimitrios Vassilopoulos correspondence with Ted Pappas, nephew of Cpt. Ralph Byron Pappas.
3. Combat Aircraft 69, US Navy and Marine Corps A-4 Skyhawk Units of the Vietnam War 1963–1973, Peter Mersky, Osprey Publishing, ISBN 978-1-84603-181-6