Unanimously recognized as the best fighter-bomber ever built, the F-4 Phantom II was designed in 1953 with a view to providing the US Navy with an all-weather supersonic twin-jet capable of combining speed, maneuverability, bomb-load capacity, weight and power. No easy task, but the McDonnell designers succeeded brilliantly; when on May 27, 1958, the first prototype (F4H-1) took to the air, its qualities were so obvious that the US Navy chose it in preference to its direct rival, the LTV F8U-3 Crusader III, ordering its mass-production. The first basic version, designed for shipboard use by the US Navy and the Marines, was the F-4B (first flight March 25, 1961), and 649 of these planes were delivered up to 1967. In addition to the many variants adopted by the USAF, the US Navy took 522 of a second version, the F-4J Phantom II (first flight May 1966). In Vietnam the F-4s were first sent into action from the aircraft carrier USS Constellation on August 5, 1964.
Unquestionably the leading role in the air war in Vietnam was played by the McDonnell F-4 Phantom, which was used by the US Navy and the US Marine Corps in the B and J versions, and by the USAF in different versions. The earliest arrivals in the Southeast Asia theater of operations were the F-4Bs of the VMFA-531, on April 11, 1965. They were followed by those of many other Marine squadrons, based on land, and by squadrons of the US Navy operating from aircraft carriers. It would be unfair to single out the exploits of any particular unit because such a list would fill the pages of a sizeable book and because all distinguished themselves both in the attack/bombing role and in their demonstration of aerial supremacy. During direct encounters with the enemy, F-4Bs and F-4Js shot down 55 MiGs, of which eighteen were MiG-21s, two MiG-19s and the rest MiG-17s. Even so, it is fitting to mention the name of the US Navy Commander Randall H. 'Duke' Cunningham, and of his radarman, Lieutenant William P. 'Willie' Driscoll, with one MiG-21 and four MiG-17s to their credit, and to point out that the squadron boasting the biggest number of enemy planes downed was the VF-96, with eight certain victims and two probables. From the moment they went into action until the last day of the war, the Navy and Marine Phantoms never let up, gaining a reputation that they were later to emulate in other parts of the world.
Aircraft: McDonnell F-4B