During the Vietnam War, the US Navy
conducted continuous, large scale sea and air operations throughout the Tonkin
Gulf. Part of those operations consisted of using anti-submarine warfare
aircraft to patrol and protect the US fleet from North Vietnamese gunboat
attack. Under the cover of darkness, the enemy would probe US defenses by using
small high speed gunboats. The S2E Tracker, sometimes referred to as a "Stoof,"
would be called in by a US ship when it believed its position was being probed
by enemy boats to use its electronic technical equipment to pinpoint the
location of enemy activity and provide air cover for our surface ships.
The usual procedure was for the
Tracker's crew to drop a parachute retarded flare from about 10,000 feet over
the target, then circle back around at approximately 300 feet to investigate the
area. If the target proved to be unfriendly, the Tracker would engage and
destroy it. There was a certain amount of risk involved in these operations
because the North Vietnamese patrol boats were equipped with radar that enabled
them to strike without visual contact.
At 2230 hours on 09 November 1966, an
S2E aircraft launched from the deck of the USS Kearsarge on a night surveillance
mission in the Gulf of Tonkin. Lt. Thomas J. McAteer, pilot; Lt. JG William T.
Carter, co-pilot; AX3 Eric J. Schoderer, radar navigation specialist; and AMS3
John M. Riordan, flight mechanic; comprised its crew.
The last radar contact between the
Tracker and its control ship was at 0145 hours on 10 November. At that time AX3
Schoderer had completed plotting the location of a possible new target and the
aircrew was in the process of investigating it. Since it was normal for the
aircraft to disappear from radar during these operations, no alarm was raised
until it did not return to the USS Kearsarge at the expected time.
A search and rescue (SAR) operation
was immediately launched. That search produced aircraft wreckage and personal
survival/flight gear far out in the Gulf of Tonkin approximately 83 miles
northeast of the South Vietnamese city of Hue, 118 miles due east of the major
North Vietnamese port city of Dong Hoi and 32 miles north of the 17th parallel
that divided Vietnam. However, there was no trace of Lt. McAteer, Lt. JG Carter,
AX3 Schoderer or AMS3 Riordan.
According to the US Navy, after
examining the recovered debris, the cause of the accident was undetermined, but
it was suspected that "the aircraft made an uncontrolled contact with the
water." The crew was initially listed as Missing in Action. Each man's
status was changed the next day to Killed in Action/Body Not Recovered at the
time the formal search was terminated.
If Thomas McAteer, William Cart, Eric
Schoderer and John Riordan died at sea as a result of this incident, there is
virtually no chance that their remains can ever be recovered due to the type of
loss. However, each man has the right not to be forgotten by the nation he gave
his life for.
On the other hand, if the unidentified
target they were investigating was in fact an enemy vessel and the Tracker was
shot down by it, there is a slim chance they could have been picked up by the
crew of the enemy ship. If that was the case, then the fate of Lt. McAteer, Lt.
JG Carter, AX3 Schoderer and AMS3 Riordan; like that of other Americans who
remain unaccounted for in Southeast Asia, could be quite different.
Since the end of the Vietnam War well
over 21,000 reports of American prisoners, missing and otherwise unaccounted for
have been received by our government. Many of these reports document LIVE
American Prisoners of War remaining captive throughout Southeast Asia TODAY.
Pilots and aircrews in Vietnam were
call upon to fly in many dangerous circumstances, and they were prepared to be
wounded, killed or captured. It probably never occurred to them that they could
be abandoned by the country they so proudly served.