Back in 2017, I retold a story that is enshrined in our collective family’s memory: the day when my dad, then- 1st Lieutenant Harry W. Roberts, Jr., survived a potential tragedy in Vietnam by ejecting out of the cockpit of his damaged F-100 fighter jet. In that article, I cited the transcript of the radio conversation that took place between Dad, the control tower, and his flight lead, Lt. Col. Sydney Johnson, in the minutes before, during, and after Dad’s ejection from his aircraft. Since that retelling, I’ve come into possession of additional documentation of this event: the letter which Dad wrote to Mom and the rest of the family back home in December 1968, as well as his Caterpillar Club certificate.
The letter shown in the image gallery below was recently discovered in some boxes of family archival documents.1 Dad’s ejection from his aircraft took place on 18 December 1968, and the letter was typed on 22 December, just a few days after the event. It contains the story of the bailout in Dad’s own words. I was surprised that the letter was typed, but Dad recently verified that he had access to a typewriter while stationed in Vietnam. The few handwritten bits on the first and last pages are clearly Dad’s handwriting. The letter itself was scorched, which suggests that it had been in possession of my paternal grandparents when their home was destroyed in a fire set by an arsonist in 1978.1
My annotated transcript of the letter is as follows; comments and clarifications are included within brackets. Minor editing has been done to add or remove extra spaces and insert punctuation in a few places.
“22 December 
Dear Elaine, and everyone else, (Please read this to my mom and dad)
This letter is intended for everyone since I don’t have time to repeat the identical story to all. I have been exceptionally busy the last few days. Besides my ejection, the next day Jules [1st Lt. Julius J. Thurn] and I had to move into other quarters. Most of my things are still in boxes yet. Add to that the mountains of paperwork involved with something of this nature and you have one busy guy.
Briefly, about the bailout, there isn’t much too much I can say without getting technical which would either bore you or loose [sic] you.
On Dec. 18, I was number four in a four ship mission up north, out of country. After takeoff, I noticed fumes in the cockpit. This in itself is no big thing, but could be an indication of something amiss. [In the 2017 interview, Dad commented that the fumes, in and of themselves, weren’t grounds to abort the mission, because sometimes that would happen when the mechanics would change the jet engine oil.] Anyway, I proceeded to the tanker, got refueled and we continued to head up north. By now the fumes were getting pretty thick. Still all the instruments were reading normal. I decided to plug in the afterburner to see what that would do—if something was going to happen, I wanted it before we were in the actual target area—for there, emergencies are complicated by having bad guys all around. As I lite [sic] the burner, I immediately lost oil pressure, which isn’t good. Col. Johnson [LTC Sydney Johnson] (#3 in the flight) and I started to turn to our closest alternate, Da Nang, about 140 miles away. Up to now we still had our bombs and drop tanks. The situation began to deteriorate when I got an engine oil overheat light. This coupled with my dwindling oil pressure meant that I was in “deep serious.” Turbine engines don’t run very well without oil; i.e. a car engine runs about 5,000 RPM—a turbine runs about 20,000 RPM so when the oil goes it will go shortly thereafter.
I had originally planned to dump my load in the bay by Da Nang as I landed, but the way things were going I had to drop it over land. About 50 miles out from Da Nang my oil overheat light went out. This may sound like a good deal to you, but it didn’t mean that my oil had cooled down, but more likely, I had no more oil to heat up. My problems were complicated more by the fact that I couldn’t get rid of my one drop tank which had 1200# of fuel in it. This tended to make the aircraft want to roll to the left side all the time. About 30 miles out I experienced two explosions from the engine section. You know that big hole in the front of the plane (air intake) well a flame shot out that dude about 100′ in front of the plane. That’s pretty hard to do especially at 300 knots. Flames were also coming out the rear. That’s symetry [sic] for you! After the explosions the engine continued to run. I still intended to make an emergency landing at Da Nang. At 15 miles from the [air] field, I experienced two more explosions from the engine this time much more severe than the first two. Up to this point I was concerned, but I felt the plane would hold together. These last two really got my attention. After the explosions the engine tore itself apart and stopped. As they say at the Buffalo Bills [football games], it was now a new ball game. The rest of the events happened quite rapidly. I couldn’t land the plane, flamed out because I was too heavy with fuel, and there was a good possibility that it would tear itself apart before it hit the ground.
I just turned it to the water and slowed it down a bit, said something to Col. Johnson about the plane coming unglued and get out of my way. Being somewhat of a coward, I closed my eyes when I went out. That rocket seat is quite a ride. Johnson looked back and said later he thought that I was going into orbit. Everything worked as advertized [sic] and the chute opened automatically. I had stepped out at 9,000′. Believe me, it took almost 10 minutes to descend to the water. I could see where the plane hit the water. That gave me a few butterflies, [but] it was a lot better looking down at it than being in it. On the way down the only thing that I could think about was my new hat I bought a few days earlier. It was in the plane.
When I hit the water, it was beautiful. Warm and wet. I did everything just as they showed us in sea survival school and there were no problems. I climbed into my little raft. By this time they had me spotted. In about ten minutes they picked me up by horse collar.
You know when I climbed into that raft I actually sat there and laughed. I couldn’t believe everything went off without a hitch. We have had a lot of accidents around here where guys in the same circumstances came out of the thing injured or not at all. After they picked me up I got P.O.ed because they shot my raft up. I wanted to take it back to use on the beach. They cost $90.00 each. Anyway I did get to keep my butt as a souvenir. Although I can honestly say I kept my cools throughout the bailout, I didn’t sleep too well that night. The next day I expected to have a
sore back, but I didn’t have an ache anywhere.
As soon as they got me to DaNang they take you to a hospital for complete tests and x-rays. This is standard procedure. The next day I was busy filling out forms etc., and the following day, I was flying again. I didn’t feel apprehensive about flying again, but you get a strange feeling inside as you look at the cockpit again—the first time since I left it unexpectedly. Once you strap in and start up, it’s the same thing all over again. If anything, I came out of the whole ordeal with a little more faith in our ejection system.
So that’s it. I don’t think they will release this to the news soon if ever, for various reasons which I will tell you about some day later. Basically it has to do with aircraft losses, not that they are exceptionally high, but I think more for political reasons.
As I said before, I’m OK. excellent, and don’t worry, I won’t make a habit of this sort of thing. I much prefer landing them myself. I hope you all had a nice Christmas. I know I will.
P.S. the photo inside [?] is the helicopter that picked me up.” [No photo was found with the letter, and no photos of helicopters that might have been the intended enclosure have been discovered to date among Dad’s Vietnam photos.]
What impresses me about Dad’s letter is the remarkable consistency between the version of the story that he wrote in December 1968, and the version that he related to me 49 years later, in 2017. Despite recent research which suggests that memories are malleable, the details in these two accounts—initial fumes in the cockpit, the left drop fuel tank which failed to jettison completely, etc.—are identical, although Dad’s later rendition included additional details which he may have lacked the time to include in his letter. Perhaps it was the stress of such a near brush with death that made the memory of this event so indelible. The only significant discrepancy is that Dad later recalled having to return to the cockpit of a new plane the next day, whereas the letter states that he flew again on the second day after the incident.
The Caterpillar Club
According to Wikipedia,
“The Caterpillar Club is an informal association of people who have successfully used a parachute to bail out of a disabled aircraft. After authentication by the parachute maker, applicants receive a membership certificate and a distinctive lapel pin. The nationality of the person whose life was saved by parachute, and ownership of the aircraft are not factors in determining qualification for membership; anybody who has saved their life by using a parachute after bailing out of a disabled aircraft is eligible. The requirement that the aircraft is disabled naturally excludes parachuting enthusiasts in the normal course of a recreational jump, or those involved in military training jumps.”2
Dad’s use of a parachute to bail out of his disabled aircraft was subsequently authenticated, earning him membership in the Caterpillar Club. His certificate is shown below.4
Although “it’s a club that nobody wants to join, once admitted, membership comes with bragging rights and a sense of pride.”5 I’m pleased to have found this certificate, and I hope that further exploration of the family archives will result in the rediscovery of Dad’s Caterpillar Club pin, as well.
Within the larger context of U.S. military history, Dad’s bailout is merely a footnote, meriting a brief mention in historical accounts of the 136th Tactical Fighter Squadron.6 In our family history, however, this was a pivotal event, from which Dad learned lessons that he has carried with him for his whole life. I’m thrilled to have both his first-hand account, and his Caterpillar Club membership certificate, as documentation of that event.
1 Harry Woodrow Roberts, Jr. (Tuy Hoa Air Base, Tuy Hòa, South Vietnam) to Elaine Roberts, letter, 22 December 1968; privately held by Julie Szczepankiewicz, Hopkinton, Massachusetts, 2023.
2 The Buffalo News (Buffalo, New York), 02 February 1978, “Arson Blaze Hits Home on Grand Island,” digital image; Newspapers (https://www.newspapers.com/clip/121224848/arson-blaze-hits-home-on-grand-island/ : 19 March 2023).
3 “Caterpillar Club,” Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/ : 20 March 2023); version from 9 January 2023, at 17:58 (UTC).
4 Switlik Parachute Co. (Trenton, New Jersey, USA), Caterpillar Club membership certificate issued to Harry W. Roberts, Jr., 18 December 1968; privately held by Julie Szczepankiewicz, Hopkinton, Massachusetts, 2023.
5 Jenny Ashcraft, “The Caterpillar Club,” Fold3 blog, posted 18 November 1922 (https://blog.fold3.com/the-caterpillar-club/ : accessed 21 March 2023).
6 Joseph B. Speed, Major, USAF, “Forgotten Heroes—U.S. ANG Fighter Squadrons of Vietnam,” (Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama: Air Command and Staff College, Air University, 2006), p. 22. “The same could be said for Lt Harry Roberts on December 18th. Lt Roberts was forced to eject from his aircraft after his jet lost oil and had subsequent engine failure. He parachuted into the ocean and was picked up after spending a ‘very refreshing’ 15 minutes in the Gulf of Tonkin. The cause of the crash was suspected enemy gun fire shortly after takeoff.”
The featured image shows 1st Lt. Harry W. Roberts, Jr. (center), and two unidentified servicemen with an F-100 SuperSabre c. 1968. The image is from the private collection of Harry W. Roberts, Jr. The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.
© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz, 2023