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Col. Jack Broughton flew more than 200 jet-fighter missions in the Korean and Vietnam Wars and received the Air Force Cross, his service’s highest award for valor after the Medal of Honor. He led the Air Force’s Thunderbirds in acrobatics that thrilled air show spectators in the mid-1950s and piloted nearly 50 types of military aircraft.
But in June 1967, he faced a possible prison term when the Air Force accused him of covering up the strafing of a Soviet freighter in the North Vietnamese port of Cam Pha by a pilot under his command.
Colonel Broughton and two of his pilots were court-martialed. All were acquitted of the most serious charges, conspiracy to violate Air Force rules of engagement that forbade such an attack. But Colonel Broughton’s career was destroyed in the fallout from one of the most contentious issues of the Vietnam War: the restrictions Washington placed on bomber pilots out of fear that the Soviet Union or China could be drawn into the conflict.
Colonel Broughton died on Friday in Lake Forest, Calif., his daughter Kathleen Schaefer said. He was 89.
In retirement, Colonel Broughton (pronounced BROH-ton) wrote widely on his combat exploits and his anger at President Lyndon B. Johnson, Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara and the Air Force for limitations that he believed cost pilots’ lives and destroyed any chance America had of winning the Vietnam War.
“We were poorly utilized, we were hopelessly misdirected and restricted, and we were woefully misused by a chain of stagnant high-level civilian and military leadership” that lacked fortitude in a “war that they ineptly micromanaged,” Colonel Broughton wrote in “Rupert Red Two” (2007), a memoir whose title drew on his call sign while a young military pilot.
Citing restrictions on hitting important targets like major ports, antiaircraft-missile sites under construction and MIG fighters on the ground during the bombing campaign called Rolling Thunder, Colonel Broughton lamented “what was probably the most inefficient and self-destructive set of rules of engagement that a fighting force ever tried to take into battle.”
Jacksel Markham Broughton was born on Jan. 4, 1925, in Utica, N.Y., and grew up in Rochester, the son of a drapery salesman.
When he was a teenager, he recalled, he saw a picture in a newspaper of “an open cockpit Navy dive bomber high above the ocean.”
“The pilot, with his cloth helmet and goggles, was at the controls while the gunner in the rear cockpit manned his turret-mounted machine gun and searched the sky for enemy aircraft,” he continued. “I could easily visualize myself in that front cockpit. I knew I wanted to be a military pilot.”
He entered West Point in 1942 and graduated too late to see combat in World War II. He flew fighter-bombers in support of American ground troops in the Korean War, then served as vice commander of the 355th Tactical Fighter Wing in the Vietnam War while also leading strikes of F-105 Thunderchief fighter-bombers.
On June 2, 1967, one of Colonel Broughton’s pilots told him that his cannon fire may have hit a ship at Cam Pha while he was leading an attack on nearby antiaircraft sites.
The next day, the Soviet Union complained that one of its merchant ships, the Turkestan, had been bombed at Cam Pha. Believing that his pilots would be punished for an infraction that could have easily been overlooked, Colonel Broughton ordered destruction of the gun-camera film that showed the ship in the sights of the pilot leading the mission.
After an investigation, he admitted that he had ordered that the film be destroyed. Because it was the only evidence of an apparent attack on the Soviet ship, the court-martial board acquitted Colonel Broughton and two other pilots of conspiring to violate the rule forbidding the bombing of Cam Pha harbor. Colonel Broughton was found guilty of destroying government property — the seven rolls of film — and was fined $600 and admonished.
Col. Chuck Yeager, the president of the court-martial, who in 1947 had been the first pilot to break the sound barrier, was quoted by Air Force magazine as saying later that “everybody from the Joint Chiefs down wanted to nail Colonel Broughton and his pilots and make them examples” for flouting restrictive bombing rules, but that most of the Air Force colonels in Vietnam sympathized with him.
Colonel Broughton was transferred to an administrative post in Washington. In July 1968, the Air Force Board for Correction of Military Records expunged the court-martial from his records, ruling that he should have been subjected to minor nonjudicial punishment, known as an Article 15 proceeding. He retired a month later.
In October 1968, Copley News Service cited an account from an unidentified source who had reported seeing the damage to the Soviet ship Turkestan and believed that it had probably not been hit by the Air Force; rather, the source said, it had apparently been accidentally struck by North Vietnam antiaircraft gunners trying to shoot down a low-flying American warplane.
In addition to “Rupert Red Two,” Colonel Broughton told of his Vietnam experiences in “Thud Ridge” (1969) and “Going Downtown: The War Against Hanoi and Washington” (1988). (“Downtown” was the American pilots’ nickname for North Vietnam’s capital.) “Thud Ridge” became a selection on the Air Force chief of staff’s recommended reading list for officers.
In addition to his daughter Kathleen, Colonel Broughton is survived by his wife, Alice Joy; his daughters Sheila Broughton and Maureen Murrah; his son, Markham; a brother, Robert; and nine grandchildren.
Colonel Broughton received the Air Force Cross for his actions over North Vietnam on Feb. 5, 1967, when he hit his target after his plane had been heavily damaged and drew fire as a decoy to divert enemy aircraft from attacking his fellow pilots on the mission. He was also awarded two Silver Stars and four Distinguished Flying Crosses.
After retiring from the Air Force, besides writing about his combat experiences, he developed commercial hovercraft and worked for Rockwell on advanced aviation projects.
Col. Leo K. Thorsness, a pilot in Colonel Broughton’s wing who was shot down, spent six years as a prisoner of war and received the Medal of Honor, revered him.
“He was a leader who led with brains and guts,” Air Force magazine quoted him as saying. “But one of his greatest strengths — supporting his pilots — was his downfall.”