Vietnam War's top ace guest speaker at JSTARS annual awards

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Roger Parsons
  • 116th Air Control Wing Public Affairs
One minute, 29 seconds. In about the time it takes to brush your teeth, Col. Charles B. DeBellevue scored his first two of six aerial victories in the Vietnam War.

Born in New Orleans and growing up in Louisiana, DeBellevues' first foray into flying came by way of the Civil Air Patrol as a teenager. Then, during an airshow, he had the opportunity to see the Air Force Thunderbirds perform.

"They were flying F-100 Super Sabres and I thought, that's what I want to do," said DeBellevue.

Attending the University of Southwestern Louisiana on an ROTC scholarship, DeBellevue graduated with a degree in physics and started his career in the Air Force.

The eventual ace's first chance to live his dream of flying met with a bump in the road when he and most of his class washed out of pilot training. Not to be deterred, he went to school and earned his wings as an aerial navigator. As fate would have it, the Air Force had begun to put navigators as Weapons Systems Officers (WS0) in the backseat of the F-4 Phantom II. When given the choice of being a bombardier in a B-52 or a WSO in the F-4, it was an easy decision for DeBellevue. He chose the jet that he would fly into the history books as the top ace in the Vietnam War, the F-4.

After 18 months of stateside duty at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, DeBellevue headed to Southeast Asia to fly with the famous 555th Tactical Fighter Squadron, the "Triple Nickel." In his first month he flew 28 combat sorties.

"We would spend four to six hours a day over North Vietnam", said DeBellevue.

On May 8, 1972, DeBellevue and his pilot, Capt. Steve Ritchie, fought it out with two MiG-21's but no one got shot down.

"It wasn't because we didn't try. In the end, we were all out of missiles and ideas, so we pulled off and went home to meet another day," said DeBellevue.

Just two days later that day would come as the pair were flying over North Vietnam supporting Operation Linebacker missions.

"It was at 11 o'clock just to the left of our nose, a black fly speck on a white cloud," said DeBellevue. "I called it out and I think Steve saw it at the same time. We blew the fuel tanks off the airplane and went to full afterburner and jumped ahead. The guy turned away from us, which was a mistake. He had a brand new MiG-21, polished, and we cut it into with an Aim-7 Sparrow missile."

Within 1 minute 29 seconds later, a second MiG-21 suffered the same fate at the hands of DeBellevue and Ritchie.

"There was a lot of excitement after those kills but you have to realize you are over his air base and you can't get too excited," shared DeBellevue. "You have to keep focused on the fact that now you have to get home. You have to fight your way out. If you let your guard down because you are so excited that you got a kill, you may be the next kill. So you keep your act together and focus on the mission at hand and get out of there with everybody. You can't afford to leave anybody behind."

By September 1972, DeBellevue amassed six kills; four against MiG-21s and two against MiG-19s. A month later he would leave combat behind having earned more kills than any U.S. aviator in the Vietnam War.

After his time in Vietnam, then Capt. DeBellevue, came full circle in his career when he re-applied for pilot training. After earning his pilots wings, he returned to the F-4.

His last assignment before retiring, after 30 years of military service, would find Col. DeBellevue back with the ROTC as commander of Air Force ROTC Detachment 440 at the University of Missouri.

With 30 years experience and more than 500 combat hours, DeBellevue drew a distinction between the war he fought in Vietnam and the more current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"In Vietnam, the ground war in some respects was similar; it was a lot of gorilla warfare. In the air, we had localized air superiority. When we were in the area we owned it, but we didn't own it all the time. Today we own the air," said the retired Colonel.

During his trip to Robins Air Force Base, DeBellevue was given a firsthand look at part of the technology and people that enable the U.S. military to own the air; Team JSTARS flying the E-8 Joint STARS.

"That is a capability that we can't do without," commented DeBellevue. "It is so vital to the freedom of our country."

The culmination of DeBellevue's trip to Robins came as he addressed the men and women of the 116th and 461st Air Control Wing's during their annual awards banquet at the Museum of Aviation Century of Flight hangar. His message was on point for Team JSTARS.

"One thing I learned early on in my Air Force career was that the team was important. The success of the mission depended on the team," said DeBellevue.