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Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 192 “World Famous Golden Dragons”

Squadron History

Spanning nearly 70 years, deploying on 12 aircraft carriers, spending countless days at sea and flying untold numbers of hours, the World Famous Golden Dragons of VFA-192 have been on duty for the United States of America defending freedom at home and abroad. Through five conflicts, the Dragons have fought bravely and sacrificed gravely, earning their way into the annals of history. In all, eight pilots wearing the Golden Dragon patch have been killed in combat. Their storied history includes the awarding of 1 Medal of Honor, 3 Silver Stars, 2 Legion of Merits with Combat "V", and 14 Distinguished Flying Crosses. The squadron itself has received numerous awards, including four consecutive CNO Safety Awards (1966-1969), six CNAFP Safety S awards, six Battle E's, one Bruce Carrier Award, and two Michael J. Estocin awards (named after the VFA-192 pilot who was awarded the Medal of Honor in Vietnam).

The squadron traces its roots back to 1945, just before the end of World War II, when VF-153 was established on March 26th at NAS Atlantic City. Flying the F6F-3 Hellcat, VF-153 was known as the "Fightin' Kangaroos" and featured an insignia of a boxing kangaroo on a white cloud. Just one short month later the squadron upgraded to the F6F-5 and moved to NAS Oceana. The squadron spent a year there before moving cross-country to NAS Alameda in August of 1946 and being re-designated VF-15A on November 15th. In March of 1947, the squadron deployed for the first time, setting sail aboard USS Antietam (CV-36). Upon their return, VF-15A transitioned to the F8F-1 Bearcat and became the Black Knights, featuring an insignia with a black and gold helmet and a gold shield. The squadron was once again re-designated on July 15th, 1948, becoming VF-151 and adding "In Omnia Paratus" to their insignia, meaning "Ever Ready." In February 1949, the squadron embarked aboard the USS Boxer (CV-21) and participated in the Pacific Fleet Minor Cold Weather Exercise off the coast of Kodiak, Alaska. Upon returning to NAS Alameda, the Black Knights upgraded to the F8F-2 Bearcat.

In 1950, the squadron was once again re-designated, becoming VF-192 on February 15th aboard USS Boxer while deployed to the Western Pacific. The squadron returned in June and transitioned to the F4U-4 Corsair. In August, the squadron became the Flying Dragons, and changed insignia to a silver dragon flying across the bow of a grey aircraft carrier (the Dragon pilots still wear this patch on occasion, in deference to the squadron's history). Flying Close Air Support (CAS) missions in support of the Marines in the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, the Dragons deployed on a combat cruise aboard USS Princeton (CV-37) in November, participating in the squadron's first combat operations on December 5th. During this cruise, VF-192 participated in a rare historical occurrence, when ENS Eugene Tissot (who later became the Commanding Officer of VA-192 during the Vietnam Conflict) lead an all-Ensign strike consisting of four AD-4 Skyraiders and three F4U-4 Corsairs that destroyed a North Korean headquarters complex at Hoeyang on the 4th of January [1]. On May 1st, the Flying Dragons participated in the strike that destroyed the Hwachon Reservoir Dam, providing flak and small arms suppression for VF-195, who earned the nickname the "Dambusters" while on this mission. Tragically, VF-192 lost three pilots during this cruise, two of whom, ENS William Patton and ENS Richard Ruppenthal, earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for their actions. The other pilot, LTJG Marcus Merner, was hit by gunfire and attempted to ditch his aircraft in the water. His remains were never found.

After returning, the Flying Dragons moved to NAS Moffett Field and briefly transitioned to the F9F-2 Panther until their new aircraft were given to VF-191 to replace combat losses. Instead, VF-192 continued to fly the Corsair, and once again deployed aboard the USS Princeton in March of 1952. On this cruise, the Dragons saw extensive combat. Because they lacked radar, the Corsairs were supposed to fly only day missions. However, the squadron's commanding officer, LCDR Elwin "Ace" Parker, convinced the Commander of 7th fleet to allow VF-192 to conduct night missions, under the condition that they still fulfill their day missions. Their skillful pilots proved very successful in their night strikes, inflicting significant damage to the enemy due to the Chinese's decision to move most of their supplies at night [2]. Despite their nighttime attacks, the Flying Dragons also continued to perform well during the day. Two of VF-192's pilots earned the Distinguished Flying Cross while participating in a two-day campaign against several hydroelectric plants in North Korea. LCDR Parker earned one as part of a 17-Corsair strike against Kyosen #3. Lieutenant Commander John Dineen earned his by leading 14 F4U-4 Corsairs and 10 F9F-2 Panthers in a strike that destroyed Fusen #2 and #3. In July of that year, the Dragons participated in major strikes against industrial targets in Pyongyang. On one such attack, LT Barbour received a wound in his left arm from small arms fire, but he was able to stop the bleeding by using a tourniquet made from strip of parachute he had made by the squadron's Parachute Riggers (PRs). On this combat deployment, VF-192 pilots earned five Distinguished Flying Crosses, two of which were awarded posthumously to LTJG Howard Westervelt Jr. and ENS Conrad Neville, the only pilots lost during this cruise.

The Flying Dragons then transitioned to the F9F-2 and F9F-5 Panther, bringing the squadron into the jet age. While aboard the USS Oriskany (CV-34), the squadron participated in the filming of two movies, "Men of the Fighting Lady" and "The Bridges at Toko-Ri". It was from these films that the Flying Dragons became known as the "World Famous Golden Dragons," due to their newfound fame and the prominent display of a Golden Dragon on the nose of their aircraft in the movies. The squadron deployed once more on the Oriskany in 1955 before transitioning to the F9F-6 Cougar in 1956. On March 15th, the squadron was re-designated as VA-192 to reflect their fixed-wing attack mission and upgraded to the F9F-8 in June. Additionally, the squadron adopted a new insignia, featuring a yellow dragon holding a white nuclear symbol with a white mushroom cloud and red rising center. It remains the squadron's insignia to this day. The next few years saw two more aircraft transitions, first to the FJ-4B Fury in 1957, then, in an interesting swap of aircraft and maintainers with VA-216 in July of 1959, to the A4D-2 Skyhawk.

The 1960's brought about the Dragon's second era of combat experience, this time aboard the USS Bon Homme Richard (CV-31). After moving to their current location of NAS Lemoore in 1962, VA-192 deployed for a ten-month combat cruise off the coast of Vietnam in 1965, during which the Commanding Officer, CDR Eugene Tissot, earned two Distinguished Flying Crosses. His first was awarded for a strike against the Dong Phong Thuong Bridge in North Vietnam, in which he hit the narrow, heavily defended bridge in the exact spot required to inflict the greatest damage. His second was earned over the course of the deployment, where he lead 8 major strikes that destroyed 285 buildings, damaged 250 more, and killed over 175 enemy combatants. Another member of VA-192, LTJG Michael Allum, earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for completing two successful attacks on the same bridge during the same flight, destroying the structure and seriously hampering the movement of supplies by the North Vietnamese. Despite their successes, the Golden Dragons returned home having lost one pilot, LTJG Neil Taylor, in combat, and one sailor, Airman Dennis Toms, who was lost at sea in a non-combat related accident.

Their return home was brief, providing just enough time to upgrade to the A-4E Skyhawk before deploying to Yankee Station again in October of 1966, this time aboard the USS Ticonderoga (CV-14). While on this cruise, the Golden Dragons participated in several events that, tragically, will forever cement the squadrons place in history. The first resulted in the only Medal of Honor awarded to a Navy jet pilot for his combat actions. The second brought about the worldwide recognition of the horrors inflicted on American Prisoners of War while interned in North Vietnamese prison camps.

Captain Michael J. Estocin (then a Lieutenant Commander) earned the Medal of Honor over two missions (a rarity for the award) in which he lead several aircraft on Suppression of Enemy Air Defense (SEAD) missions to protect the main strike package by flying ahead, drawing the fire from and destroying Surface-to-Air missile (SAM) sites utilizing SHRIKE anti-radar homing missiles. The first mission occurred on April 20th, 1967 in a strike against two thermal plants in Haiphong, North Vietnam. Throughout the mission, LCDR Estocin reported the locations of several active SAM sites while simultaneously neutralizing three of them. During the strike, his A-4E Skyhawk was hit by a SAM, however, LCDR Estocin returned to the target area to continue supporting the strike. He finally left with only five minutes of fuel remaining and proceeded to conduct in-flight refueling over the course of 100 miles, eventually disengaging from the tanker just three miles from the carrier with only enough fuel for one approach. He then flew a precise approach to a fiery arrested landing, resulting in several injuries requiring medical attention. Six days later, LCDR Estocin convinced his superiors he was again ready to fly despite his injuries, and launched on another SEAD mission as part of a strike against fuel facilities in Haiphong. His aircraft was again hit by a SAM, sending the aircraft into several uncontrolled fiery aileron rolls before recovering. The aircraft remained on fire and continued to leak fuel while in a shallow dive. During the dive, LCDR Estocin's SHRIKE missiles and external tanks were jettisoned from the aircraft (it was eventually concluded that this was a result of the fire initiating the jettison logic, not from pilot action). However, his wingman noted that, although the cockpit of the aircraft was unaffected from the missile, LCDR Estocin sat motionless, with his head bent slightly forward. Additionally, he failed to respond to repeated radio calls, and the aircraft continued to descend. Watching the aircraft impact the ground without seeing an attempt to eject, his wingman called off any search-and-rescue effort and it was initially concluded that LCDR Estocin had perished in the crash. Later intelligence from North Vietnam suggested that he had in fact ejected and was captured, and his status was updated to Prisoner of War. This conclusion was further supported when his sister sent a package to him that was later returned by Hanoi, but included added mementos that suggested he was still alive. When all POWs were released in 1973, LCDR Estocin was not among them, though several former prisoners reported hearing his name while in captivity. It was then believed that he was killed in captivity, which remained the prevailing belief until a congressional commission investigated and determined that CAPT Estocin (who was promoted in absentia) had in fact died during his plane crash. This conclusion was further supported by the North Vietnamese, who insist they have no records of a Michael Estocin ever being held.

Several Golden Dragons were, however, held captive by the North Vietnamese. The squadron's Executive Officer, CDR Ernest Moore, who received a Silver Star and two Distinguished Flying Crosses for his actions on a SEAD mission over North Vietnam, became a prisoner of war after being hit by enemy fire and ejecting while on a different SHRIKE mission on March 11, 1967. Commander Moore earned the Legion of Merit with Combat "V" and a second Silver Star as a POW for his efforts in leading the resistance against the extreme mental and physical punishments inflicted by the North Vietnamese. Another Dragon, LCDR Richard Stratton, was also held by the North Vietnamese as a Prisoner of War, earning the Silver Star, the Legion of Merit with Combat "V", and the Bronze Medal with Combat "V". After being forced to eject when his A-4E Skyhawk ingested debris while employing rockets against a set of barges, LCDR Stratton was captured and forced to read a "confession" that was obviously coerced. A picture of LCDR Stratton bowing deeply to a North Vietnamese officer appeared in the April 7, 1967 edition of Life magazine, in which Stratton appeared to be drugged, leading to international condemnation of North Vietnamese treatment of Prisoners of War. In fact, LCDR Stratton was not drugged; he had been tortured. He used the media and the confession to deliberately discredit the North Vietnamese in an attempt to bring light to the horrific treatment of POWs.

The World Famous Golden Dragons returned home briefly and became the first squadron to receive the A-4F Skyhawk in July of 1967. Six short months later, VA-192 was aboard Ticonderoga once again, deploying on their fourth Vietnam cruise in December. While on this cruise, they participated in Operation FORMATION STAR before heading to Southeast Asia, acting as a show of force following the capture of USS Pueblo (AGER-2) by the North Koreans. In Vietnam, the Dragons once again distinguished themselves in combat, with the Commanding Officer, CDR Lowell Eggert, earning three Distinguished Flying Crosses. His first was awarded for planning and leading a successful strike against two targets in North Vietnam on April 28th, in which he accurately employed two Walleye bombs despite facing intense enemy fire. He earned his second and third for planning and leading a two-day campaign against a vital storage area at Xom Trung Hoa on May 8th and 9th. Using his extensive knowledge and experience, CDR Eggert determined the most advantageous targets and succeeded in causing extensive damage to the facility, causing several secondary explosions and creating a fire that continued to burn well after the strike was complete. The Golden Dragons would deploy once more with the Skyhawk in April of 1969, this time aboard the USS Oriskany. It was on this cruise that, after accumulating and unprecedented 55 accident-free months that included 30,477 flight hours and 11,580 arrested landings, VA-192 became known as the Super S#!t Hot World Famous Golden Dragons (SSHWFGD), a title they still proudly wear today.

In February 1970, the Dragons transitioned to the A-7E Corsair II before deploying once again in November, this time aboard the USS Kitty Hawk (CV-63). While on this cruise, the World Famous Golden Dragons performed another historical feat by dropping a record 15 million pounds of ordnance over 6,600 flight hours and 2,901 arrested landings while participating in the "Laotian Highway Patrol", all without losing a single aircraft or pilot. Upon their return in July of 1971, the Dragons immediately began workups in preparation for what would be their seventh and final deployment in support of combat operations in Vietnam. As part of this deployment, VA-192 mined North Vietnamese harbors and participated in Operation LINEBACKER, which was the first continued bombing campaign against North Vietnam since President Lyndon Johnson instituted a halt in 1968. During this cruise, the Dragons completed 3,600 combat strikes over a record 192 days. The only Dragon casualty during this deployment was LCDR Dennis Pike, who was shot down while piloting his A-7 over Laos.

With the completion of combat operations in Vietnam, VA-192 deployed on several Western Pacific cruises before deploying in 1979 aboard the USS America (CV-66) for their first Mediterranean cruise. While on their second cruise in the Med, the Dragons spent 202 out of 220 days at sea. In 1983, VA-192, along with the rest of Carrier Air Wing Nine (CVW-9) onboard the USS Ranger (CV-61), was ordered to sit off the coast of Nicaragua due to the instability in Central America in July before being deployed to the Arabian Sea in response to Iran's threat to block oil exports in the Persian Gulf. The World Famous Golden Dragons then received their first taste of Japan when, on June 3rd, 1985, the squadron moved to MCAS Iwakuni as part of the Marine Corps Unit Deployment Program. The squadron returned to NAS Lemoore at the end of the year and began preparing to transition to the F/A-18A Hornet. On January 10th, 1986, the Golden Dragons were officially re-designated as VFA-192 to reflect their fixed-wing fighter-attack role, and were notified that they would be changing homeport, leaving NAS Lemoore for NAF Atsugi, Japan.

The first cruise for the Dragons as VFA-192 aboard USS Midway (CV-41) saw them embarked for 261 days. While onboard, they participated in Operation EARNEST WILL, providing air cover to escort reflagged Kuwaiti oil tankers. In 1991, the World Famous Golden Dragons once again found themselves conducting combat operations, this time in support of Operation DESERT STORM. During the opening night of the war, VFA-192's F/A-18 Hornets, equipped with the High-speed Anti-Radiation Missile (HARM), proved instrumental in defeating the Iraqi's air defenses by attacking several missile batteries. In all, the Dragons flew 576 combat sorties, employing 730,000 pounds of ordnance in just 43 days. Throughout the 1990s, VFA-192 would deploy five times in support of Operation SOUTHERN WATCH, first aboard the USS Independence (CV-62) then aboard the USS Kitty Hawk, including two no-notice deployments. Additionally, the Golden Dragons upgraded to the F/A-18C Hornet, thus enhancin their radar, avionics, and weaponry.

After completing a standard weapons training detachment in Guam in August 2001, the Golden Dragons were busily getting ready for their next scheduled deployment. The terrorist attacks of September 11th changed VFA-192's plans, however, and they immediately began preparing for an emergency deployment, readying themselves within a week. Instead, the Dragons and CVW-5 were split into two Detachments (Dets), with Det A deploying aboard the USS Kitty Hawk to provide Close Air Support for a contingent of Special Operations Forces who were also embarked and Det B moving to the U.S. Navy Support Facility on Diego Garcia to provide air defense for the vulnerable island. In January of 2003, VFA-192 set sail again, for an indefinite duration with an unknown destination. The end result was 339 combat missions in support of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM. Over 100 consecutive days at sea, the Dragons expended a grand total of 224,000 pounds of ordnance dropped, including 283 Precision Guidance Munitions (PGMs). Over the next nine years, the World Famous Golden Dragons would deploy several times in support of Operations IRAQI FREEDOM, ENDURING FREEDOM, and NEW DAWN, both with CVW-5 and, after a homeport change back to NAS Lemoore, with CVW-9. Notably, the last two Navy strike-fighter aircraft over Iraq were piloted by LCDR Mike Manicchia and LT Ty Kersteins.

The Dragons deployed in September 2012 onboard the USS John C. Stennis (CVN-74), four months earlier than originally planned, where they once again entered the history books as the first squadron in over 40 years to employ rockets from an aircraft carrier (rockets were banned from carriers after the accidental firing of a rocket triggered a massive fire onboard the USS Forrestal). As part of CVW-9, they supported Operation ENDURING FREEDOM in Afghanistan and returned in April 2013.

The squadron is now at home in Lemoore and has recently transitioned to the F/A-18E Super Hornet. The transition began in July of 2013 with the arrival of Lot 23/24 Rhinos and culminated with the "Safe for Flight" certification in March of 2014. During this process, Dragon pilots learned the differences between Legacy & Super Hornet platforms and honed their proficiency in the air. This transition not only included pilot training but included the building of Super Hornets from the ground up, showing the absolute professionalism and dedication of the Dragon maintainers. With the transition complete the squadron joined CVW-2 in preparation for any combat operations. As part of Carrier Air Wing Two, the World Famous Golden Dragons provide the United States the ability to maintain a continued forward presence around the world, maintaining freedom of the seas and the ability to project power anywhere, at any time.


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