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43 years after rescue, pilots finally meet

Ron Catton sits in his office in Spokane on Thursday and recalls how he was saved during Vietnam War by a KC-135 pilot who disobeyed orders and flew into North Vietnam to help his crippled F-4C Phantom jet back to base. (Christopher Anderson)
Ron Catton sits in his office in Spokane on Thursday and recalls how he was saved during Vietnam War by a KC-135 pilot who disobeyed orders and flew into North Vietnam to help his crippled F-4C Phantom jet back to base. (Christopher Anderson)
Jeff Jardine Modesto Bee

MODESTO – Wayne Hague always wondered whatever happened to the pilot whose crippled plane he refueled and escorted to safety over North Vietnam in 1967.

Ron Catton always wondered about that pilot who kept him from having to bail out of his F-4C Phantom fighter and right into a suite at the Hanoi Hilton.

More than 43 years have passed since they were linked by their meeting in the skies over Southeast Asia, even though they never knew each other’s names. But fate has a way of working things out.

This head-spinner happened because two men who live more than 900 miles apart told their versions of the same story to the same people who helped them finally connect.

Here’s the gist of it: Hague, 76, retired from the Air Force, spent 20 years teaching and now is a volunteer counselor at the Merced County Rescue Mission in Merced, Calif. Catton, 78, owns a financial services business in Spokane.

In December, Catton spoke to a group of students at a high school that his grandchildren attend in Yakima. Among his flying stories was his near-catastrophe during the Vietnam War and how a pilot and crew of a KC-135 refueling plane disobeyed orders by flying about 100 miles into North Vietnam to get him.

That story sounded very familiar to Rick Van Beek, the school’s principal. Van Beek had heard it from his wife, Lolly, who heard it from the tanker pilot during a medical missionary trip to Kenya.

“The bells started going off in my head,” Van Beek said. “How can these be separate stories?”

After seeing Catton again a couple of weeks later, Van Beek went to his office and called his daughter, who also had gone on the Africa trip. She knew the tanker pilot’s name. Van Beek then did a Google search on Wayne Hague. He printed out the info, returned to the gym and handed it to Catton.

“I said, ‘Here’s another pilot who seems to have the other half of your story,’ ” Van Beek told him.

‘I’ll come and get you’

The story had its roots in the fall of 1967, as the Vietnam War was heating up.

Catton served in the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing. On this particular day, he flew the lead plane among Phantoms providing cover for bombers on a mission over Hanoi.

Once the bombers emptied their loads, they returned to their bases. Then the Phantoms zoomed down and dropped their bombs as well.

As Catton bombed a railroad bridge, enemy rounds ripped into the intake of his right engine.

As he maneuvered his crippled plane, Catton said, enemy fighter jets appeared. “I looked over my shoulder and there were three MiGs on me.”

After another pilot flew in to run off the MiGs, that threat subsided.

Catton faced another: a plane with one blown-out engine and other major problems, including the fact that he was still above North Vietnamese real estate.

“I was heading back toward Laos, all shot up and leaking fuel,” Catton said. “I wanted to bail out over Laos. If I bailed (over North Vietnam), I would have ended up in the Hanoi Hilton.”

He put out what amounted to a “mayday” call, and Hague – flying over Laos in his KC-135 – answered.

“When I heard his voice,” Catton said, “it was like the voice of God. I told him I was heading west toward Laos. He said, ‘Negative, Cadillac Lead (Catton’s code name). I’ll come and get you.’ ”

Just one problem: Hague had strict orders not to cross over the border into North Vietnam.

With a pilot in trouble, though, he didn’t hesitate. Hague hooked up with Catton over the Black River, roughly 100 miles from Laos.

“I just went in and got him,” Hague said.

As they positioned their respective planes to connect the refueling boom, Catton radioed: “Understand I’ve got a fire warning and smoke in the cockpit. You don’t have to take me on.”

Hague’s response? “Cadillac Lead, get your sorry ass in position for a hookup before I change my mind!”

Catton’s plane leaked the fuel as quickly as the tanker could pump it in. So they stayed connected for more than 200 miles until Catton detached to land at an air base in Thailand while Hague returned to his own at Takhli. Just as Catton touched down, his left engine quit, too.

A likely court-martial

Hague never told anyone at Takhli about the incident. Someone must have. His superiors knew, and the rumor mill soon began to churn.

A day or so later, on the ground at Udon, Catton heard that the tanker pilot likely would be court-martialed for going over into North Vietnam, putting his crew and plane at severe risk.

So Catton went to his commanding officer, who had a solution: He’d recommend the tanker pilot for a Silver Star.

Neither Hague nor Catton can say this for certain, but both heard that the Silver Star recommendation arrived at headquarters the same day as the court-martial papers, leaving the brass to weigh an act of heroism that saved a pilot’s life against the military crime of blatantly disobeying orders.

Hague never got his Silver Star, but he didn’t get court-martialed, either.

Through all of this, neither Hague nor Catton learned the other’s identity.

It stayed that way until Feb. 6, when Hague got a phone call that went something like this:

“Are you Wayne Hague?”

“Yes, I am,” he answered.

“Were you in Vietnam in 1967?” the caller continued.

“Yes, I was.”

“Did you enter North Vietnam to pick up a fighter pilot, shot up and going down?”

“Yes, I did.”

“I’m the pilot.”

Only then did Hague learn the name of the man he’d rescued more than 43 years ago.

They met a few days later. Hague already planned on traveling to Lewiston, Idaho, to watch grandson Jason Hague play baseball at Lewis-Clark State College.

So he drove two more hours to Spokane, and the two pilots saw each other face to face for the first time.

Indeed, Hague always wondered about the fighter pilot whose life he saved so long ago.

Likewise with Catton.

“All this time, it’s been, ‘Gee, I wish I knew who it was,’ ” Catton said. “Then to have it happen like that. He’s a really nice guy.”

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