A Moment in Air Force History: River Rats

Senior Master Sgt. Frederick Smith
435th Air Base Wing History Office

Even though Ramstein’s River Rat Memorial plaque reads “Lest We Forget,” many may have already forgotten the River Rats of Vietnam.

Not to be confused with the “Brown Water Navy” River Rats who secured the important supply lines along Vietnam’s rivers and canals, Ramstein’s River Rats are from the Red River Rats Fighter Pilots Association. The association was comprised of those who flew missions over the Red River Valley, which runs southeast through Hanoi to the Gulf of Tonkin in Vietnam. This Route Package Six was sometimes called the most heavily defended airspace in the history of aerial combat.

Purportedly, the association began with a chance idea by the operations officer at Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand – Col. Howard C. “Scrappy” Johnson. He felt pilots could fight better in the air if they would know each other first on the ground. This was difficult to do since the air force attacking North Vietnam was dispersed across several air bases and aircraft carriers. So Colonel Johnson convinced his commander to invite the other wings to Korat for a “tactics conference.”

Working 12-hour shifts with one weekend off every three months, combat flying in Vietnam was high stress, and the pilots were risking their lives almost every day. So the 1967 “tactics conference” at Korat became a chance to blow-off steam and took on a carnival atmosphere complete with elephants and a marching band. The event provided stress relief and was a great morale booster. Recognizing the importance, leadership decided such conferences were needed more often.

So the River Rat association began holding “practice” reunions – called practice because a true reunion could not take place until all members held in Vietnam were released. During these practice reunions, their emblem was designed showing the Red River with a star for Hanoi and a white mountain representing the Thud Ridge, a small, 5,000-foot mountain area near Hanoi that provided F-105 Thunderchiefs, “Thuds,” an area to hide behind on their bombing runs. The ridge lost importance as the F-105s were replaced with the more agile F-4 Phantom IIs.

As the air war over Vietnam drew to a close, the River Rat pilots were reassigned to other units. Being an F-4 Phantom II base in the 1970s (through 1986), many found their way to Ramstein and established the “Europe Rats.” Out of the combat environment, the River Rat associations changed their focus toward honoring prisoners of war, and those missing in action and killed in action, and providing support to their families left behind. Their reunions became fundraisers for surviving children’s scholarship funds.

In 1976, Ramstein’s Europe Rats established the River Rats Memorial for all who fought in Vietnam and did not return. Later, it moved near the new Ramstein Officer’s Club. Today it serves as a reminder to all Airmen. May they never forget.