The Russian “Trawlers” (NATO designation: AGI for Auxiliary General Intelligence) with what looked like one thousand “fishing” antennas plied the Gulf of Tonkin on a daily basis… needless to say, it was a cat-and-mouse game to see what havoc they could expend towards our two carriers operating there 24 hours a day.
John Wunche was a big man with bright red hair and a flaming red handlebar mustache. He was a frustrated fighter pilot whom fate and the Bureau of Naval Personnel had put into the cockpit of a former heavy bomber now employed as a carrier-based tanker.
CDR Wunche flew the tanker like a fighter and frequently delighted the tactical pilots by rolling the “Whale,” as we all called the KA-3B tanker, on completion of a tanker mission. Consequently, John’s nickname was “the Red Baron.”
On 21 July 1967 he proved just how appropriate that name was.
The “Bonnie Dick” had nearly completed a recovery. The Russian trawler had been steaming at full speed to try to cut across our bow, and the bridge watch had been keeping a wary eye on the intruder. For a while it looked as if the Russian would be too late and we would finish the recovery before having to give way to the trawler.But a couple of untimely bolters extended the recovery and the “Bonnie Dick” had to back down and change course to comply with the rules…
The LSO hit the wave-off lights when the “Whale” was just a few yards from the ramp. John crammed on full power and sucked up the speed brakes for the go-around. The “Bonnie Dick” began a sharp right turn to pass behind the Russian, causing the ship to list steeply, and there, dead ahead of John, was the Russian trawler.
The Russian disappeared in a heavy white cloud of jet fuel spray, then reemerged with JP-4 jet fuel glistening from her superstructure and running lip-full in the scuppers. The Russian trawler immediately lost power as the ship’s crew frantically tried to shut down anything that might generate a spark and ignite the fuel.
She was rolling dead in the water in the Bon Homme Richard’s wake, her crew breaking out fire hoses to wash down the fuel, and the “Bonnie Dick” steamed out of sight, completing the recovery of the Whale.
Needless to say, the Red Baron was an instant hero to the entire ship’s company.