Vietnam War combat pilot charts his own course
Bob Rodzwell runs his hand over a 1960s map that shows the Annamese Mountains along the border of Laos and North Vietnam to the east and the country of Thailand to the west. He points out the two main passes through the mountains that were part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail that the North Vietnamese used to move supplies.
Rodzwell is intimately familiar with that mountain range, having flown over it 100 times during the Vietnam War in an F-4 Phantom performing surveillance and reconnaissance missions for the U.S. war effort. The same type of plane also carried missiles used to bomb targets that his "Guy in Back" or GIB photographed during their runs. But as far as the North Vietnamese were concerned, all the planes were equal-opportunity targets, whether they carried missiles or cameras.
Rodzwell spent a year piloting F-4 Phantoms in Southeast Asia, where his squadron was based at the Thani Royal Air Force Base in Udorn, just over 100 miles from Thailand's eastern border with Laos.
Rodzwell always wanted to fly after growing up listening to "Captain Midnight" on the radio, and joining the Air Force in the early 1950s didn't necessarily lead to combat missions.
Rodzwell was born into a "traditional" family in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and after he graduated from a Jesuit boys high school in 1951, he attended Marquette University for two years.
"An Air Force recruiter came by and showed me a bunch of brochures, and in the spring of 1953 I went into the Air Force aviation cadet program," Rodzwell said. "It was the pre-Air Force Academy program, which came later. They divided our class in half, and we would attend ground school in the morning and fly in the afternoon, and after two weeks we would switch."
Rodzwell graduated, married his wife Jody and had various assignments in the U.S. and abroad, including three years in Tripoli, Libya, from 1961 to 1964.
"The Vietnam War really started to break out in the mid-1960s, and if you volunteered to go, you were pretty much guaranteed the type of plane you wanted to fly - not always but it was almost guaranteed," Rodzwell said. "The F-4 Phantoms flew at twice the speed of sound, and I thought I'd fly the fastest thing around. There were two bases for reconnaissance – Saigon for South Vietnam and Udorn for North Vietnam."
Rodzwell was assigned to the air base in Udorn serving with the 11th Tactic Reconnaissance Squadron, and he departed the U.S. on Oct. 1, 1969, returning Oct. 5, 1970. He got his first choice of planes - the F-4 Phantom – and was assigned to do surveillance.
The 7th Air Force headquarters was in Saigon, from where the air war was run and the targets were chosen.
"The targets were bridges, railroad yards and truck depots," Rodzwell said. "Lots of times we just got the coordinates and would fly to the site and take photos, sometimes over the jungle. Everything was in the nose of the plane – high-speed cameras took a series of snapshots. The Guy in Back operated the camera when we got over the site."
Following a major strike in North Vietnam, a surveillance crew would wait for the smoke to clear and then move in to photograph the damage to make sure the mission had been successful. "The enemy was ready for us, and we were defenseless," Rodzwell said. "There were no satellites at that time so RF-4s led all our strike missions up north."
According to Rodzwell, missions would typically last about one hour and 20 minutes.
"In our squadron, they took a lot of hits before I got there," he said. "I was the tactics officer, and we were always changing our tactics because the enemy was always changing. We would set up the rules for the missions, and if you followed the rules, you were pretty safe. The guys who didn't follow the rules got shot down, although sometimes it was just an accident."
Rodzwell described the carefully choreographed ballet that reconnaissance pilots had to follow to escape being shot down, starting with the altitude they flew.
"The North Vietnamese had anti-aircraft armament that were pretty effective between 500 and 4,500 feet," he said. "If you could stay out of that parameter, you were pretty safe.
"Equipment in the aircraft would notify us if a SAM missile was locked on us. It would show where the SAM site was off your nose, and you would look in that direction. The SAM site had a radar antenna called the sleeve that would send a message to the SAM, which would come out of the silo, and there would be an indicator on your panel.
"There would be a loud squeal that you couldn't turn down, and you had to see the SAM and turn the plane to put the direction of the missile off your nearest wingtip. You put the plane in a 20-degree shallow dive and would watch for the orange glow of the missile as it came up at seven times the speed of sound. Because it was locked on you, it would correct and follow you if you headed down. So you rolled into it and over it, and because the fins on it were very small, it was slow to react, so you could get away."
Although Rodzwell painted a horrifying picture of SAM missiles traveling at two-and-a-half times the speed of sound locked onto his plane and streaking toward him, "I had to take evasive action on very few of my missions," he said.
However, one mission was different: Rodzwell received the Award of the Distinguished Flying Cross, with the citation reading, "Major Robert J. Rodzwell distinguished himself by extraordinary achievement while participating in aerial flight as an RF-4C aircraft commander over North Vietnam on 27 January 1970. On that date, Major Rodzwell flew an extremely hazardous reconnaissance mission though heavy hostile defenses that included Surface-to-Air missile sites.
"Despite having missiles launched at him through a solid stratus overcast, Major Rodzwell successfully out-maneuvered the radar-controlled missiles and gathered vital intelligence for friendly forces in Southeast Asia. The professional competence, aerial skill and devotion to duty displayed by Major Rodzwell reflect great credit upon himself and the United States Air Force."
For night missions, Rodzwell's GIB used radar instead of photography, and he added, "You had to have a good plane with good radar."
He continued, "Sometimes your targets were in a valley, and you had to fly down into the valley. The GIB would pick out the site on radar and to reach the initial position, you had to 'dime turn' – in other words, turn on the radius of a dime. Some guys crashed into the mountains, and only 10 of us could do night missions."
Another big factor was air speed, with the F-4 Phantoms typically flying at 420 knots or 500-plus miles per hour. For typical missions, the planes would fly at 22,000 feet and would refuel at the Thailand/Laos border where a big orange tanker plane would fly in a racetrack pattern, according to Rodzwell.
"As you approached the target, you would increase your speed," Rodzwell said. "Before I got there, they would go in fast, and I changed that. I said to go slow as you approached the target and then speed up because the enemy would shoot behind you.
"We had a checklist as we crossed the Mekong Delta: Turn off the lights and turn the mirrors out so you could see the tracers. As long as they were behind me, that was OK. If they were in front, that was a problem."
Pilots and their GIBS went on about three missions each week, and there were two kinds of missions – assigned reconnaissance missions and "volunteer" missions, "which I did," Rodzwell said. "There were certain areas that were your responsibility, but if you would find a target of opportunity, you would call in a strike force and take photos afterwards."
According to Rodzwell, his squadron was made up of 27 pilots, 27 GIBs and 18 airplanes, which were equipped with a top-secret GPS system, and even the pilots didn't know how it worked.
"We didn't know what it was, but it worked," Rodzwell said. "It was accurate to within 3 and 9 feet, and we parked the planes under a big metal roof to avoid detection.
"Originally, after you flew 100 missions, you went home, but after I did 100, I had to fly over Laos for another 77. But officially, I didn't fly over Laos. Vietnam was a political war, and there was a lot going on that the public didn't know about. It was run from Washington instead of turning it over to the generals to make the decisions."
Rodzwell was one of four pilots whose family lived in Thailand. "My wife and two daughters lived in Bangkok," he said. "That was the deal I made with her. She said, 'I'll let your volunteer if I can see you.' About every six weeks, I would get four or five days off, and a C-130 would make a circuit around the bases and Bangkok to pick up and drop off guys, and I would hitch a ride.
"My daughters were 10 and 11 years old and can remember the war. The situation had its bad parts too. It was expensive, and my wife would listen to Radio Bangkok and hear reports about what was going on before I did. It was nerve-wracking for her – if anyone deserves a medal, she does."
Rodzwell is philosophical about his wartime exploits, noting that pilots have to consider themselves invincible or they wouldn't fly. "The guys who wanted to be heroes got shot down," he added.
Rodzwell's most memorable mission – a longer one to Cambodia - didn't involve enemy fire but food poisoning. The night before the mission, about 20 of the Air Force personnel went to a restaurant called the Golden Bell outside the base.
The next day, "I'm over Cambodia refueling when my vision got bad," Rodzwell said. "My guts just exploded, and I was cramping and passing out. The plane was on auto-pilot, but I didn't know if I could land it. The GIB couldn't land it – he wasn't a pilot.
"I called in to the base and was told to fly to a safe place near the base where we could eject and get picked up by a helicopter. The GIB always ejects first, and the whole sequence from when the GIB's canopy and seat ejects to the pilot's canopy and seat ejecting is .8 seconds. The GIB can eject the pilot too, and I told him that if I passed out to eject both of us.
"I somehow got us down safely, and the medics were there waiting for us. They wanted to take me to the hospital, but there was no way because they kept you for a week. I went home and showered, and the flight surgeon gave me a shot and some medicine, and I slept for 30 hours.
"I was sick for a week, and I was the first one to get sick, so they grounded the whole fleet because they didn't know who had eaten at the restaurant. Some guys got really sick."
There was a ritual on the base for everyone after their last mission, and after Rodzwell landed, he had to sit in a chair in the back of a pickup truck while it was driven around the base and everyone clapped and cheered.
"It ended at the bar, where I had to buy the enlisted men's drinks the rest of the night," Rodzwell added. "In fact, there was a party for one reason or another almost every night, although the pilots flying the next day drank soft drinks."
When Rodzwell left Thailand after a year, he still had three years left in his 20-year stint and was part of a reconnaissance squadron based in the U.S., a pretty tame assignment after flying over Vietnam and Laos.
While still serving in the Air Force, Rodzwell went to night school; he left the military at the end of 1973 and earned his MBA in May 1974. He became a technical advisor for a company that made sophisticated instruments for fighter aircraft, and later he and Jody moved to Arizona where Rodzwell bought and sold land until he retired.
"My wife died in February 2016, and my daughter in Sherwood thought I should move up here to be closer to her," said Rodzwell, who bought his home in Summerfield last August.
Rodzwell has another daughter who lives in Hawaii and a total of four grandchildren.
Reflecting on his time in combat, Rodzwell said, "I didn't do anything special – I just did my job. A lot of guys did more. I'm not a hero."