Major Lee Lasseter
Lieutenant Colonel Lee T. "Bear" Lasseter (1934–1980) was an Officer and aviator in the United States Marine Corps. Then Major Lasseter and his Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) Captain John "Lil" Cummings are the only all USMC aircrew to shoot down a North Vietnam MiG during the Viet Nam War. On 11 September 1972, while piloting his F-4J of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 333(VMFA-333) off the deck of the USS America (CV-66), he and his RIO led a four-ship MigCap mission northeast of Hanoi and successfully shot down a MiG-21 and damaged a second MiG. On egress their F-4J was hit by a Surface to Air Missile (SAM), forcing the crew to eject feet wet out to sea and were successfully rescued. Lasseter died in 1980 following gall bladder surgery in Florida.
Shamrock 201 and VMFA-333
F-4J Phantoms of VMFA-333 in flight in 1976
F-4J Phantom of VMFA-333 in flight 1972
Shamrock 201 a USMC F-4J Phantom II, Buno 155526, flew on 11 September 1972, by Lasseter and Cummings while assigned to VMFA-333. The squadron was deployed to Carrier Air Wing Eight (CVW-8) on board USS America. Lasseter, who was the squadron executive officer at the time, was participating in a unit West Pac deployment which represented the first time a USMC fighter attack squadron deployed on a West Pac deployment. Lasseter and Cummings, both TOPGUN graduates, were leading a four-ship sortie to protect an Alpha Strike whose target was 50 miles northeast of Hanoi. Each Shamrock MIGCAP Phantom was armed with four AIM-7 sparrow missiles and four AIM-9 sidewinder missiles and a 600-gallon centerline fuel tank.
‘The growl of the Sidewinder tone was loud enough to drive you from the cockpit, and it really did a job on that MiG,’ Capt ‘Lil’ John’ Cummings, VMFA-333 F-4 Phantom II RIO.'
No fewer than 11 US Marine Corps squadrons flew versions of the Phantom II in Southeast Asia from May 1965 through to early 1973. Most missions were flown from land bases at Da Nang and Chu Lai, in South Vietnam, and Nam Phong, in Thailand. Rather than the air-to-air missiles that were the main component in the original F-4 armament, these aircraft carried an ever-expanding range of weaponry. Some toted 24 500-lb bombs and others strafed with up to three 20 mm gun pods, while most flew daily sorties delivering napalm, Snakeye bombs and big Zuni rockets.
Nevertheless one deployment was from an aircraft carrier, and included a successful MiG engagement.
Maj Lee ‘Bear’ Lasseter and Capt ‘Lil’ John’ Cummings were sere experienced aviators serving with VMFA-333 ‘Shamrocks’, which was assigned to Carrier Air Wing 8 aboard USS America (CVA-66). The only Marine F-4 squadron embark on a US Navy carrier during the Vietnam War, VMFA-333 had commenced combat operations on Jul. 14, 1972. Initially flying CAP and strike missions in Route Packages III and IV, VMFA-333 had been committed to the US Navy’s ‘hot’ Route Package VIB by September. Targets in this area included the heavily defended areas around Haiphong.
As told by Peter E Davies in his book US Marine Corps F-4 Phantom II Units of the Vietnam War, thanks largely to the expertise of veteran RIO John Cummings, the AWG-10 radars fitted in the unit’s F-4Js were among the most reliable anywhere. His pilot, ‘Bear’ Lasseter, had been a leading figure in the Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron, which developed and taught Topgun-style ACM tactics. Following Lasseter’s training, ‘Shamrocks’ crews were highly proficient in air-to-air combat.
Their Sep. 11, mission was a MiGCAP orbit north of Haiphong from which they were vectored onto MiGs circling Phuc Yen airfield. Capt Cummings picked them up on radar at 19 miles, despite the VPAF jets being at low altitude, and the ‘Shamrocks” wingman, Capt Scotty Dudley, saw the leading silver MiG-21 at six miles. Lasseter launched two AIM-7E-2 Sparrows, but the MiG pilot evaded both weapons. A turning fight then developed immediately over Phuc Yen, with copious AAA fired the Phantom IIs. ‘Bear’ loosed off his other two Sparrows and two AIM-9Ds, but the MiG pilot kept up his low-altitude evasion.
Dudley soon had to break away with fuel starvation, as his jet had only received a partial in-flight ‘plug’ earlier in the mission. The MiG pilot chose that moment to reverse his turn, possibly assuming that Lasseter’s Phantom II (BuNo 155526) was out of missiles. However, ‘Bear’ still had two Sidewinders left, and he fired one of them. As John Cummings told to Davies, ‘The growl of the Sidewinder tone was loud enough to drive you from the cockpit, and it really did a job on that MiG. Everything of the cockpit was gone’.
Maj Lasseter then saw a black MiG-21 threatening Dudley’s departing Phantom II, and he warned his wingman to ‘break’ before firing his remaining Sidewinder, which also guided successfully. They saw the MiG diving away, trailing smoke, but then had to concentrate on urgent SAM warnings and a chronic shortage of fuel that compelled them to egress directly over Hanoi city. Moments later an SA-2 exploded near their right wing, and Lasseter regained control long enough for them to reach a safe over-water ejection, albeit at up to -6g. Dudley’s F-4J (BuNo 154784) was hit by AAA minutes later, and its remaining fuel gushed out. However he and his RIO, 1Lt J W Brady, also made it ‘feet wet’ over the ocean and eventually joined Lasseter and Cummings back aboard CVA-66 to celebrate the only all-Marines MiG kill, and another ‘damaged’.
Only three USMC MIG kills
There were three (3) confirmed MiG kills credited to U.S. Marines during the Vietnam War. Chances for marine pilots to engage in air-to-air combat was rare, as they were almost exclusively assigned to ground support. The first was on 17 December 1967 in an F-4D against a MiG-17 piloted by Captain Doyle D. Baker, USMC and 1st Lt. John D. Ryan, Jr., U.S. Air Force. The second was on 12 August 1972 in an F-4E against a MiG-21 piloted by Captain Lawrence G. Richard, USMC and Lt. Commander Michael J. Ettel, U.S. Navy. The final one was on 11 September 1972 in an F-4J against a MiG-21 piloted by Major Lee T. (Bear) Lasseter and Captain John D. Cummings.
Military decorations and awards
Lasseter received the Silver Star Medal the third highest military award for his aerial victory in 1972. He was also recognized by the Marine Corps Aviation Association as the Marine Corps Aviator of the year and recipient of the Alfred A. Cunningham Award in 1972.
Silver Star citation
The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Silver Star to Major Lee Thomas Lasseter (MCSN: 0-74063), United States Marine Corps, for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action against the enemy as a pilot of jet aircraft while attached to Marine Fighter Attack Squadron THREE HUNDRED THIRTY-THREE (VMA-333), embarked in U.S.S. America (CVA-66). On 11 September 1972, during a coordinated air wing strike in North Vietnam, Major Lasseter was leading a Combat Air Patrol element. When informed of an enemy threat in the area, he immediately vectored his aircraft and wingman toward the enemy. Although outnumbered Major Lasseter heroically engaged the enemy, effectively diverting them from the strike force and destroying one of the aircraft. During his egress, another of the enemy made an attack. Even though, he was deep in enemy territory and damaged the enemy aircraft. Major Lasseter's superb airmanship courage and devotion to duty reflected great credit upon himself and were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.
An Untimely Death
In 1980, Lasseter underwent gall bladder surgery at the Lake Wales Hospital in Lake Wales, Florida. His wound became severely infected and his wife Shirley had him transferred to naval hospitals Orlando and Bethesda before dying from his post surgery infection. A criminal investigation and lawsuit followed. Lasseter is buried at the Lake Wales Cemetery, Lake Wales, Polk County, Florida.