21. The Death of a Commanding Officer
CDR John T. Mitchell assumed command of VQ-1 in March
1984. Ten months later, on 23 January 1985, he and eight other VQ-1
personnel were killed when the squadron VIP aircraft was lost at sea en
route to Guam from Atsugi. CDR Mitchell was piloting the VA-3B when it
disappeared from a radar tracking screen approximately 125 nautical miles
north of Guam.
The subsequent JAG investigation, completed in
September, reported the Skywarrior took off from Atsugi at about 1000 Guam
time. Twenty minutes later the crew contacted the VQ-1 detachment at Atsugi
and reported an air turbine motor (ATM) was malfunctioning. The VA-3B
continued on its course and stayed in radio contact with Navy officials,
first on Iwo lima, and then on Guam. At 1230 Guam time the navigator
reported the starboard ATM was shut down and the port one was heating up.
Seventeen minutes later the aircrew requested permission to descend from
33,000 to 20,000 ft. Four minutes later, at 1251, radar contact was lost
with the stricken aircraft.
A massive air and sea search and rescue effort failed
to locate any trace of the VA-3B or its crew and passengers. Presumed dead
were CDR Mitchell; LCDR Robert E. Delateur; LTs Marshall M. Laird and Carlos
A. Miller, LTJG Richard A. Thomson; Senior Chief John T. Clark; Chief David
K. Nichols; POs Thomas J. Jorgensen and Thomas J. Degryse. Thus, CDR
Mitchell became the first incumbent VQ-1 commanding officer to be killed in
the line of duty.
An endorsement to the accident investigation by VADM
James E. Service, Commander Naval Air Pacific, summed up by saying:
“Although the exact cause of the mishap cannot be determined from available
information, dual ATM failure with resultant flight control problems is the
conclusion best supported by the circumstantial evidence.” The ATMs provide
power for the hydraulic pumps, which in turn power the flight control
CDR R.E. .“Bob” Claytor, the executive officer at the
time of CDR Mitchell’s tragic death, became the new CO and led the squadron
through the next 16 months until relieved in May 1986 by CDR Earl Smith. At
this writing, CDR Smith is scheduled to relinquish command to CDR Marcus
Williams in August 1987.
Thus began the U.S. Navy’s airborne electronic
reconnaissance efforts in the Pacific, which resulted in the establishment
of VQ1, the Navy’s first dedicated squadron for the mission. Part two will
examine the European Theater missions and VQ-2.