Colonel Joseph E. Milligan
Colonel Joseph E. Milligan

This day marks the 55th anniversary of the fateful day when Joe’s F4 was shot down over North Vietnam.

You are cordially invited to the unveiling of the commemorative print, MiG Encounter at the Middleburg American Legion Post 295, 111 The Plains Road (VA-626), Middleburg, Virginia.

Joe will retell his story and chronicle the story of his girlfriend, Skippy, and the role she played.

Food and filming sponsored by Hormel Foods Corporation.

In September 1966 when the 44-year-old former WW2 fighter ace Colonel Robin Olds arrived to take command of USAF’s 8th Tactical Fighter Wing at Ubon, a Royal Thai Air Force base close to the border with Laos, the war in south-east Asia was escalating rapidly. There were now about 385,000 American forces stationed in Vietnam, plus another 60,000 sailors offshore and the numbers were increasing. But so were the casualties. Olds arrived at Ubon to find that many of the pilots in his new command were accomplished and experienced fliers, but morale was flagging – what they needed was some inspirational leadership. It only took Olds a few weeks to prove he was the best leader they had ever had.

If he had found some of his pilots dejected, he found nothing wrong with their aircraft: the iconic McDonnell Douglas F4-C Phantom II, belonging to Olds’ 8th Tactical Fighter Wing would soon be involved in many of the biggest and most successful air battles of the war.

On May 20th, 1967 the 433rd TFS scored four confirmed MiG kills: two by Col. Robin Olds/1st Lt. Stephen Crocker (aircraft  #64-0829, forefront in photo), one by Maj. John Pardo/1st Lt. Stephen Wayne, & one by Maj. Phil Combies/1st Lt.  Daniel Lafferty.

Unfortunately, the 433rd lost two pilots that day as well. Phantom # 63-7669 (top Phantom in photo), crewed by Maj. Jack Van Loan and 1st Lt. Joesph Milligan was shot down, both were captured and held as POWs. Both men were released and returned to the U.S. in 1973.

This does not tell the whole and/or accurate account of the event. Joseph E. Milligan DVM PhD and Colonel USAF (retired) recounts the following story:

“I was the back-seat pilot of Phantom #63-7669 (the top Phantom in the “MiG Encounter” print). I was flying on Robin Olds’ wing (call sign Tampa 02) protecting his tail that day. Moments after the scene depicted in the print, our 2 Phantoms attacked a formation of 16 MIG-17’s and immediately engaged 10 of those MIG’s in a vicious dogfight going round and round in what Robin described as a “fur ball”, a “good old fashioned WWII whiffer-dill”, and “the most intense dogfight” he had ever been in (that statement coming from a Triple Ace!). Robin attacked two of the MIG’s, while 2 more MIG’s rolled in on his tail. Maj. Jack Van Loan, my aircraft commander, and I rolled in on the tail of those 2 MIG’s, 2 more MIG’s rolled in on our tail, plus 2 MIG’s dove on us from “2 o’clock” and 2 more MIG’s dove on us from “10 o’clock”. At that moment, we lost our radio and could not warn Robin of his impending danger of being shot down. We engaged in a very close-in dogfight with an enemy armed with guns (23mm and 37mm) while we had none. We were only armed with radar guided Sparrow and heat seeking Sidewinder missiles which require a minimum of one mile separation in order to destroy an enemy aircraft. Our only choice was to slide out, angle in, and fire a Sparrow across the bow of the 2 MIG’s on Robin’s tail to chase them off. The tactic worked and we saved Robin from certain destruction, but we immediately came under fire from the 2 MIG’s behind us, first by a Russian heat-seeking Atoll missile and then 23mm guns. The Atoll, instead of going up our tailpipe and killing us, broke lock and homed in on our Sparrow. That was an incredible and unexpected sight to see “one missile chasing another” as they followed a ballistic (curvature of the earth) path over the horizon!

But I digress, we successfully evaded those 2 MIG’s but were still under attack from four other MIG’s, one of which hit our aft fuselage with two 37mm cannon shells. Our Phantom exploded into a fireball, but Jack and I successfully ejected and spent the next 6 years in the Hanoi Hilton and other prisons of North Vietnam.”

Col Milligan further noted:

“Different accounts state that Tampa 01 and 02 were “engaged by” MIGs at 6,000 to 8,000 feet and one account states that the dogfight ranged from 100 feet to 10,000 feet, but none of those accounts specify above ground level (AGL) or mean sea level (MSL). So, to bring some clarity to battle: The mountainous terrain in the area was about 8,000 feet. Tampa 01 and 02 attacked 16 MIG-17s flying in a Luftberry Circle (as eight 2-ship formations) at 14,000 ft MSL or 6,000 ft AGL. If you look closely at the “MiG Encounter” print, you can see 2 F-4s in the distance in the upper right corner of the print. That’s Tampa 03 and 04, the other two members of our 4-ship formation. They broke off from us to attack 16 more MIG-17s in a similar Luftberry Circle down below us at 100 ft AGL. Talk about being outnumbered! Four F-4s vs. 32 MiG-17s!

But our job was to protect the bombers! Although, officially, our flight of four was credited with shooting down 4 MIGs, we know for sure that 6 MIGs were destroyed that day (and probably a seventh) without the loss of a single bomber. One of those MIGs was shot down by Ballot 01, Phil Combies, leader of the other F-4 four-ship at the front of the Thud gaggle. (“Thud” is the nickname for the F-105 Thunderchief, the USAF fighter/bomber that carried the bulk of the bombing mission in Vietnam early in the war. The F-105 was lovingly called the Thud by the pilots because that’s the sound the aircraft made if it hit the ground, a bit of pilot humor).)  The only F-4 lost was mine. A 6 or 7 to one “kill” advantage is a great day (if you weren’t me!).

 As an aside, I was “Hoss” and Jack Van Loan was “Buns.” I was 5’ 10” and 188 pounds at the time (the AF’s max weight limit for that height). Jack was 5’ 11” and about 195 pounds (also his max allowed). Robin Olds gave us a lot of grief about that and called us the “heaviest fighter crew in TAC” (Tactical Air Command). Jack asked Robin one day: “Who would you rather have on your wing, a fighter pilot or a track star?” That was the last time Robin ever mentioned our weight!

I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the TV show “Bonanza” popular in the ‘60s. Hoss Cartwright was one of the characters and he wore a large cowboy hat aptly called a “Hoss Hat”. I always wore one with my rank insignia on it when I flew. I stuffed it under my ejection seat before takeoff. I do not know if the hat crashed and burned with my airplane or if it got out when I ejected. Losing my Hoss Hat was my only regret.”

Later in the fight Col Olds shot down one of the MiG-17s while other Phantom crews shot down another five to make it one of the most successful days of the war for the Air Force. 

By the time Robin Olds relinquished his command later that year, his 8th TFW, nicknamed the ‘Wolfpack’, had become the USAF’s top MiG-killing Wing in south-east Asia. He had flown 152 combat missions during this time, scoring another four air victories to add to his World War 2 tally – now a ‘triple ace’ his final score was an impressive seventeen victories. He retired in 1973 with the rank of Brigadier General. He died at age 85 on 14 June 2007 and is interred at the United States Air Force Academy Cemetery. 

Stephen B. Croker, a native of Evanston, Illinois graduated from Dubuque High School in 1960, the Air Force Academy in 1964, and a master’s from Georgetown in 1965. He retired from the Air Force in 1996 with the rank of Lieutenant General and lives in Chestertown, Maryland.

Jack Van Loan, a native of Eugene, Oregon, and a 1954 graduate of Oregon State University, was released from captivity on 4 March 1973. He went on to serve thirty years in the USAF retiring in 1984 as a Colonel and lived in Columbia, South Carolina. He died at age 87 on 20 October 2014.

Joseph E. Milligan, a native of Grandin, New Jersey, a 1959 graduate of North Hunterdon Regional High School and a 1963 graduate of Rutgers University, was released from captivity on 18 February 1973. 1Lt Milligan was on his 113th mission when he was shot down. Following his return to the USA he earned a master’s and Ph.D. from Rutgers University and a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) from Cornell School of Veterinary Medicine. He continued his service in the Air Force retiring as a Colonel and lives in San Antonio, Texas. On 7 December 2021 Joe lost his late wife, Air Force Flight Nurse Mary Ann Milligan who also served in Vietnam. May she rest in peace.

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