One of the aircraft launched from the decks of the ENTERPRISE was the F4 Phantom fighter/bomber. The Phantom, used by Air Force, Marine and Navy air wings, served a multitude of functions including fighter-bomber and interceptor, photo and electronic surveillance. The two man aircraft was extremely fast (Mach 2), and had a long range (900 - 2300 miles, depending on stores and mission type). The F4 was also extremely maneuverable and handled well at low and high altitudes. The F4 was selected for a number of state-of-the-art electronics conversions, which improved radar intercept and computer bombing capabilities enormously. Most pilots considered it one of the "hottest" planes around.
When the ENTERPRISE arrived in Vietnam on its second combat cruise, two of its pilots were LTCDR William R. Stark and CDR Richard Rich. The two comprised the crew of an F4B Phantom sent on a mission over North Vietnam near the city of Hanoi on May 19, 1967. Rich served as the pilot of the aircraft, while Stark was the Radar Intercept Officer (RIO).
During the mission, Rich's wingman reported that enemy defenses, both anti-aircraft fire and surface-to-air missiles (SAM) were extremely heavy. He and CDR Rich were forced to fly their aircraft at very low altitudes in order to avoid the numerous missiles. While over the target, the wingman observed a missile detonate close behind CDR Rich's aircraft and he subsequently lost sight of Rich's aircraft during the violent evasive maneuvering. Visual contact was completely lost and repeated radio calls to CDR Rich produced negative results.
The wingman found no trace of Rich's aircraft, there were no emergency radio signals, and the wingman saw no parachutes. Search and rescue efforts were impossible due to the high threat in the Hanoi area. Electronic surveillance of the area produced negative results.
For 23 years, the Vietnamese have denied
knowledge of the fate of Richard Rich, even though his aircraft went down
in a heavily populated area. There is every reason to believe that Vietnamese
could account for Rich, even if he died when his aircraft went down. On
November 11, 1976, the Department of the Navy declared Richard Rich dead,
based on no specific information he was still alive.
During the time he was maintained Missing in Action, Rich was advanced to the rank of Captain.
Disturbing testimony was given to Congress in 1980 that the Vietnamese "stockpiled" the remains of Americans to return at politically advantageous times. Could Rich be waiting, in a casket, for just such a moment?
Even more disturbing are the nearly 10,000 reports received by the U.S. relating to Americans missing in Southeast Asia. Many authorities who have examined this information (largely classified), have reluctantly come to the conclusion that many Americans are still alive in Southeast Asia. Could Rich be among these?
Perhaps the most compelling questions when remains are returned are, "Is it really who they say it is?", and "How -- and when -- did he die?" As long as reports continue to be received which indicate Americans are still alive in Indochina, we can only regard the return of remains as a politically expedient way to show "progress" on accounting for American POW/MIAs. As long as reports continue to be received, we must wonder how many are alive.
As long as even one American remains alive, held against his will, we must do everything possible to bring him home -- alive.