Airman Follows Footsteps of a Life Cut Short

MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan -- They shared the same name. They flew and fought the same types of Wild Weasel fighter jet missions. They looked alike and the family says they even displayed the same mannerisms. It's a fascinating tale of a father and son who lived the same life, complete with a sobering twist.   They never met.   Forty years ago, aptly named John Wayne Seuell was living a real-life war movie, flying F-4D Phantoms over hostile Vietnamese jungles as an Air Force captain. It was almost noon June 6, 1972, when his parental duty was severed by fate, only days away from welcoming his only child into the world.   Reports released from the Pentagon tell a mind-bending story of what are believed to be Seuell's final moments.   While on a combat air patrol mission northwest of Hanoi, Seuell was with Lt. Col. James Fowler and their F-4D was the lead aircraft in a flight of four. All aircraft arrived in the target area without incident, until the sortie made its way back toward its base destination in Thailand. While approaching surface-to-air missile launching sites near heavily guarded Yen Bai Airfield in North Vietnam, the launch of an enemy missile was detected.  

Although evasive maneuvers were initiated, it wasn't enough as the missile exploded below the tail section of Seuell's plane. The aircraft burst into flames, but did not disintegrate. No canopies or parachutes were seen. About 30 minutes later, flights in the area reported hearing two emergency signals, but no contact could be made.   Because the incident occurred deep in enemy territory, no organized search could be made. Both pilots held the status of missing in action for many years. The only things that remained of the crash site were questions.   Two months following the crash, John David Seuell was born, unaware of the irrecoverable tragedy surrounding him. At the time, it was impossible to know the parallels that would arise between he and his father. But being born into such a storied pedigree, the telltale signs were always there.   "I knew about the circumstances (of my father) growing up," said Seuell, now a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force and the deputy commander of the 35th Operations Group. "From the youngest age, I always wanted to be a pilot. I was surrounded by it; I knew it was what I was going to do."   Seuell's bloodline is United States Air Force; he's never known anything else. To take it a step further, life leading up to his commission was essentially a formality; he was always going to fill his father's footsteps. It was just how closely, however, no one could have foreseen.   While his father's playground was dense, alien jungle, Seuell started in the sandbox. His first missions as an F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot led him over Southern Iraq during Operation Southern Watch to fight the antagonistic presence of Saddam Hussein.   "It was an eye-opening experience," said Seuell, now an 18-year Air Force veteran. "It was really a gut check when you get up in the morning and plan to spend your day far, far away from anyone friendly."   It was decades later, and the only thing separating the father and son was time. They were always fighting the same fight.   Here, the 35th Fighter Wing is home to the Wild Weasels -- F-16s that provide lethal suppression of enemy air-defenses across the globe. The 13th Fighter Squadron, that is part of the 35th FW, was retained when the 432nd FW was reflagged by the 35 FW during a changeover in the fall of 1994. Colonel Seuell flew 13th FS aircraft in his primal flying days as a lieutenant and now still supervises the squadron in his current position.   While attending training in San Antonio in his early 20s, Seuell got his hands on an unclassified report about his father's last flight.   "It described the airplane (my father) was in, and painted on the side of the intake was a red '13' with a black panther, which is an indication that it was a 13th FS airplane," he said with a grin.   As the time passed, more and more details began to emerge. But one looming question remained; what exactly happened to his father?   Villagers from small towns near the crash site were interviewed, along with SAM site operators working that day. People who claimed to have visited the crash site shortly after still could provide no concrete answers.   It wasn't until 1995, in San Angelo, Texas, when Seuell was perusing through a bookstore and discovered a book titled "Inside Hanoi's Secret Archives," by Malcolm McConnell. Scrolling through the index, Seuell said he was taken back after seeing his father's name listed. Looking further, it even had his picture inside and definitively listed his father as killed in action.   It was that moment when Seuell finally received the answers to all the questions racing through his head over the years.   "I have no doubt that this is my dad," Seuell said, pointing to the pictures he pulled from a 4-inch thick binder full of his father's heritage. "He was able to exit the aircraft ... but was unable to survive the ejection."   Having never been allowed the luxury of meeting his father, Seuell said the emotions surrounding his death were more prideful than anything else.   "I've always looked up to the sacrifice of my father, what he used it for and what he had given," he said. "He was always a role model and he made being a pilot more serious. I felt like I knew the consequences more clearly.   "There really is a more serious side of sacrifice and knowledge you have to be willing to give if required."   The more Seuell unearthed about his father's life and sacrifice, the more the legacy came bursting through the woodwork. John Wayne Seuell was in elite company.   During one memorable flight April 16, 1972, Seuell was in a group of four fighter jets that recorded two MiG-21 kills that afternoon. During that flight, he flew alongside decorated Vietnam MiG killers Fred Olmstead and Jeffrey Feinstein.   That mission, which has been widely documented and published across the world, is remembered as one of the more famous dogfights in Vietnam history. It's known as "Basco Flight", now a staple call sign in the Wild Weasel lineage.   As an F-16 pilot with ties to the same squadron his father flew with in his heyday, Seuell flies SEAD missions regularly with the Wild Weasels. And the call sign of the most recent mission he flew -- Basco.   "That was pretty cool," Seuell said. "I grew up flying fighter jets, became a Wild Weasel pilot and train against the same threats that existed in Vietnam."   In 40 years, so much has changed. Yet, still, so much remains the same.   "In some ways it may be a bit poetic," Suell said. "I am trained to go after the things that killed my dad."

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