Mid-September 1974 would see yet another WESTPAC combat deployment for the already-battle hardened USS Enterprise (CVAN-65), the first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier in history and, at the time, the largest fighting ship in the world. The Big E had, by that time, worked through a number of trips to Vietnam, where it would generally conduct air-to-air and air-to-ground flight ops from Yankee Station in the Gulf of Tonkin. This deployment in particular would be different from the others, however. The Navy’s newest fighter, the Grumman-built F-14 Tomcat would be sent to sea for its first ride aboard the gargantuan gray vessel.
In October of 1972, VF-1 “Wolfpack” and VF-2 “Bounty Hunters” were reestablished to receive the first ever F-14A Tomcats designated for Navy service. Both squadrons received their initial batch of fighters by July of the next year, reaching full strength and proficiency by 1974. The same year, both would be attached to Carrier Air Wing Fourteen (CVW-14), which in turn was slated to be the Big E’s air group for its next ride to Asia as part of Task Force 77. While the pilots, Radar Intercept Officers (RIOs) and support crew of the Wolfpack and Bounty Hunters were bringing themselves up to speed on their new airframe, the Enterprise put into the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard at Bremerton, WA for a refit. Among the modifications to the Big E’s infrastructure were a pair of enlarged jet blast deflectors for the Tomcats it would be set to receive in the not-so-distant future. In March of 1974, the Big E took aboard the VF-1 and VF-2 Tomcats for carrier qualifications off the North American west coast, and the Navy’s first operational F-14s carried out their maiden launches and arrested recoveries aboard the massive warship. Come September, it was time for a band to play the ship off at the harbor while families waved their love ones aboard goodbye for the next 5-6 months.
In early 1975, as was Navy tradition when a vessel crossed the equator, “pollywogs” (sailors and Marines who hadn’t yet crossed the equator) were inducted into the “Solemn Mysteries of the Ancient Order of the Deep”, becoming “shellbacks”. After a few days of good humor and command staff-authorized mischief, the crew settled back in for the rest of their routine deployment. The monotony of the deployment was quickly punctured by Typhoon Gervaise, which hit Mauritius, in island nation in the Indian Ocean, in the worst possible way. The Big E was ordered to change course and steam to Mauritian capital of Port Louis, where it anchored to provide humanitarian aid and disaster relief to the people of the stricken nation. The carrier’s air group helped out by assigning helos for search, rescue, recovery and aid-delivery operations.
The next bit of excitement for the Navy’s biggest combat vessel came in late April. American involvement in Vietnam was already winding down to a close, and ground forces were largely pulled out, but there were still over 8000 American nationals left in the country who needed to be evacuated, lest they face the disturbingly cruel treatment of the invading North Vietnamese forces. Additionally, a number of South Vietnamese civilians and military personnel, who had previously assisted American forces in some way or another, needed to be taken out of the country for the same reason. On April 29th, the commander of Task Force 76, already on-station off the Vietnamese coast near Vung Tau, was given the order to execute Operation Frequent Wind, the mass-scale evacuation. The Enterprise and the USS Coral Sea (CVA-43) carrier attack groups, attached to Task Force 77, would provide air cover for slower aircraft and ground troops involved in the effort. And just like that, on its very first deployment, the F-14 Tomcat made its combat debut.
In theory, the F-14 would be able to give its pilots a considerable edge over North Vietnamese MiG fighters, as the Tomcat was designed with the input of pilots who had faced such aircraft in combat. It could fly beyond the envelope of those third generation jets, and then some. Not to mention that by the latter years of the war, the Navy’s flight training regimens had vastly improved over what it once was during the earlier years of the war. Should any VPAF (Vietnam People’s Air Force) fighters happen upon a Tomcat or two, they were in for the fight of their lives. Back aboard the Enterprise, things kicked into high gear like something out of a Top Gun movie scene. It was showtime for the pilots and RIOs of the Wolfpack and Bounty hunters. Their Tomcats were brought up to the flight deck on the massive elevators, armed, hooked up to the steam catapults, and then shot off the deck at breakneck speeds. If they encountered any enemy fighters, there weren’t any kills to show for. The evacuation process was speed up and the US Embassy as well as the Defense Attache Office were both cleared. By midday on the 30th, Task Force 76 completed its mission and steamed away from Vung Tau. The Tomcats of the Wolfpack and Bounty Hunters ceased combat flight operations and the F-14’s combat debut ended without a shot fired or a merge entered.
Interestingly enough, the last days of the conflict in Vietnam were the dawning days of the career of one the greatest fighter jets in military history.