Chuck DeBellevue is a name rarely known outside of military aviation and military historian circles, but he truly is an Air Force Ace and unsung hero. Forty-seven years ago today he scored his sixth MiG kill to become the leading Ace of the Vietnam War. This is his story.
The Triple Nickel
Born Charles Barbin DeBellevue a name fit for a southern gentleman born in New Orleans, Louisiana. Chuck graduated from the University of Southwestern Louisiana (now Louisiana Lafayette) in 1968. Commissioned as a Second Lieutenant through ROTC, he completed navigator training and eventually found his way to the famed Triple Nickel in October of 1971.
The Triple Nickel, aka The 555th Tactical Fighter Squadron was part of the 432 Tactical Reconnaissance Wing in Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base. It was the most famous flying unit in Vietnam with the likes of Robin Olds, Chappie James and Steve Ritchie – all flying legends associated with it in one way or another. That unit downed more MiGs than any other in the Southeast Asia Theatre.
DeBellevue was a WSO (Weapons Systems Operator), the backseater in the two seat F-4 Phantom. Many of his missions were flown with Steve Ritchie and the two scored two aerial victories in the F-4D. Ritchie and DeBellevue also teamed to get two MiG’s in the F-4E.
Ritchie had gotten his fifth kill (to achieve Ace Status) in August 1972 and had reluctantly returned to the US to do public speaking and try to rally public support for defeating communism. Ritchie had gotten a kill without DeBellevue and that left Chuck with four upon Ritchie’s departure.
Fortunately, DeBellevue was then teamed with another excellent pilot, a humble one named John Madden (no he did not go on to become a football announcer). On September 9, 1972 Madden and DeBellevue were flying west of Hanoi when they were “jumped” by MiG 19s. They maneuvered behind the first MiG 19 firing an AIM-9 Sidewinder missile. They then turned to the other MiG firing another AIM-9, within a matter of minutes Madden/DeBellevue had scored two kills.
Chuck DeBellevue was now the leading Ace of Vietnam.
For an excellent article on the details of the September 9th flight and what became of DeBellevue and his plane, see this story. However, I have a few encounters of my own to share.
Doctor Aviation Memories
Twenty-seven years after the Madden/DeBellevue victories, I was working on my dissertation at the University of Washington. The topic had to do with the amount of information pilots needed to see versus hear in order to be successful. I recruited several Boeing pilots to be part of the study. After one session my subject, John, asked if he could stay until his daughter came and picked him up.
“Sure” I responded. We began to chit chat. I asked him what he flew in the Air Force. He told me F-4s. I asked him if he served in Vietnam. He had. I asked him what unit he was in. He replied, the 555th. “You were in the Triple Nickel”! “Yes, I was”. “Did you have any kills?” “Three, confirmed” was his reply. He went on to tell me of his double victories with Chuck DeBellevue. He was John Madden. What a privilege it was to meet him.
Then there was Chuck DeBellevue. He also came to the University of Washington to visit with our ROTC Detachment Commander, an old friend. I, unfortunately, found out about the visit a week after he had come!
But there was a time that I did meet him. Chuck came to the Air Force Academy to speak during my 3-degree year. I was so excited I got there early with my buddy Paul Suarez. We literally sat right in front of Chuck in the front row of H-1 right by the podium. That evening, I found out how humble and soft spoken Chuck DeBellevue is. That coupled with the fatigue of academy life put me off to sleep with Chuck DeBellevue looking right at me. Paul Suarez poking me in the ribs. I was, and still am, embarrassed.
However, the whole episode that night speaks volumes about the man. In 1972 Chuck DeBellevue was a talented and humble 27-year-old WSO simply doing what his country asked of him. When he became the leading Ace of Vietnam, he remained a quiet, soft spoken humble officer until I met him in 1981. I suspect he remains so to this day. Chuck DeBellevue: Air Force Ace and Unsung Hero.