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The history of the Gunfighters

MOUNTIAN HOME AIR FORCE BASE, Idaho -- If you've seen a movie about the old west, you're familiar with this scene: Two men square off on an empty street, each intent on killing the other. The dispute was over a game of cards, an insult to family honor or revenge for another killing. Regardless of the reason, the absence of law and order allowed the men to settle the dispute with a fight to the death.

As I look out my window, I see the backdrop for just such a scene -- high desert plains in a rustic area with even the occasional tumbleweed. So I suppose it's no surprise when people learn the nickname of the 366th Fighter Wing is the Gunfighters, they think about the images Hollywood made popular about cowboys in the old west -- gamblers, outlaws and renegades.

Nothing could be further from the truth. If you're unfamiliar with how the Gunfighters really got their nickname, I'd like to pass along the story the 366th FW History Office shared with me.

During the 1960s, the 366th Tactical Fighter Wing flew F-4Cs in combat operations during the Vietnam War. In early 1967, the wing received a new mission to fly combat air patrols, or CAPs, for Thailand-based F-105s. This new mission took the Gunfighter pilots into North Vietnam along Route Package VI and into direct contact with enemy MiGs To avoid the F-4C's missiles, the enemy pilots flew low using the ground clutter to confuse the AIM-7 Sparrow. Because the missiles were not effective, Col. Frederick "Boots" Blesse, the operations director, requested that his Wing commander, Col. Jones Bolt, apply for a waiver to carry the SUU-16 Gunpod (which contained a 20 mm Gatling gun) on these new missions.

But the configuration required adjustments to the wing's jets. Due to the new mission, the wing could not eliminate any of its current weapons. With the increasing threat of surface-to-air-missiles in the area, the F-4s had to carry ALQ-71 barrage jamming pods to give the aircrews protection for an array of enemy threats. Without this critical piece of equipment, the aviators flew unprotected into the teeth of the enemy.

Working hand-in-hand with McDonnell Douglas representatives, the 366th Armament and Electronics Maintenance Squadron, along with the 366th Field Maintenance Squadron, began working a local Class 1 modification. They moved the jamming pod and its wiring to allow the wing to carry the SUU-16 Gunpod with the standard weapons configuration for its new mission up north.

The Gatling gun worked well in close-in fighting. On May 14, the first MiGs fell prey to this new weapons configuration. While providing MIGCAP, a flight of 366th TFW F-4Cs trailed an F-105 Strike Force. Another F-4 flight was spaced between the F-105 flights. The first flight, led by Maj. James Hargrove Jr., and 1st Lt. Stephen DeMuth, heard MiG warnings after departing their refueling point. The lead F-105 pilot called bogies at 9 o'clock. As Major Hargrove spotted the two F-105s leaving the target area, he noticed four MiG-17s, divided in two elements, in hot pursuit. Dropping their fuel tanks, Major Hargrove and his wingman headed for one element while jets 3 and 4 attacked the second.

For the next 20 minutes, the scene was a beehive of activity as the F-4s took on 16 MiGs. Major Hargrove's victory came after five minutes of combat, during which he fired AIM-9 Sidewinders and AIM-7 Sparrows against three MiG-17s. He missed all three. On his fourth engagement, he elected to use the SUU-16 gun pod.

"I opened fire at approximately 2,000 feet from the MiG and continued firing until, at approximately 300 feet, flames erupted from the top of the MiG fuselage," said Major Hargrove. "Almost immediately thereafter the MiG exploded."

Five minutes later, Capt. James Craig Jr., Aircraft 3 commander, and his backseater, 1st Lt. James Talley, also downed a MiG with their 20-mm gun after missing two other MiG-17s with Sparrow missiles.

The gun again proved itself with three more MiG kills. By the middle of June, the wing shot down six MiG-17s and six MiG-21s. By the middle of the summer, the enemy fighters had all but disappeared from the skies. The nearly total absence of enemy jets from the skies over North Vietnam made MIGCAP no longer an essential requirement of the air war in Route Package VI.

Eventually, the Gunpod story's success spread throughout Vietnam, and many began referring to the 366th TFW as the Gunfighters. With a total of 18 enemy aircraft destroyed, many with the Gunpod, this moniker seemed very appropriate. Since that time, the 366th FW took on the Gunfighters nickname and took its place in the chronicles of history.