Retired Air Force Gen. William W. Momyer, a World War II combat ace who oversaw all U.S. air operations in Vietnam and Laos during the American military’s buildup in the Vietnam War, died of a heart ailment Aug. 10 in Merritt Island, Fla. He was 95.
During a 35-year military career, Momyer clocked more than 4,000 flying hours. As a child, he had been captivated by accounts of Charles Lindbergh’s historic solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927. In 1938, directly after college, Momyer joined the Army Air Corps.
“Spike” Momyer, as he was nicknamed during flight training, distinguished himself as a fighter group commander during the North African campaign of World War II. He was credited with eight confirmed aerial kills, seven of them in one battle in which he single-handedly attacked a formation of 21 German aircraft.
After the war, Momyer ascended through the command ranks of the Air Force. Starting in July 1966, then-Lt. Gen. Momyer held dual roles as deputy commander for air operations in Vietnam and commander of the Seventh Air Force in Saigon. He reported to William Westmoreland, then commander of U.S. troops in Vietnam, who once described Momyer as “non-emotional, logical and pragmatic.”
Momyer, who was known as a competent technician, was best remembered for championing the consolidation of aerial firepower under tight central control.
The concept was applied during the battle of Khe Sanh, an area near the North Vietnamese border where about 5,000 Marines were stationed at an isolated base. Westmoreland hoped to lure the Communists into a large battle, overwhelm them with firepower and inflict large numbers of casualties.
The siege lasted from January to April 1968, and tens of thousands of North Vietnamese tried to overrun the Marines. Making heavy use of the B-52 bomber, American forces unloaded 100,000 tons of explosives on Khe Sanh. Westmoreland said he named the operation Niagara “to invoke an image of cascading bombs and shells.”
The North Vietnamese suffered heavy losses and ultimately gave up their attempt to overrun the bastion. The Americans, who suffered hundreds of casualties, shut down the base soon after.
John F. “Joe” Guilmartin Jr., a professor of military history at Ohio State University who was an Air Force helicopter pilot in Vietnam, said there is “still a great deal of debate of how effectively we used air power in Vietnam, particularly against targets in North Vietnam.”
The battle of Khe Sanh, where the enemy was relatively static, “was made to order for (Momyer’s) vision of tactical air power,” Guilmartin said. But the approach “was not a magic wand,” he said, adding that a top-down approach did not always work in a campaign where more flexibility was needed, as with fleeting targets along the Ho Chi Minh trail.
Momyer received his fourth star while in Vietnam and left the country by August 1968. Until retiring five years later, he served as commander of the old Tactical Air Command at Langley Air Force Base, Va. The command trained air and ground crews for deployments in Europe and the Pacific. On very short notice, Momyer arranged to deploy 7,000 personnel and 250 aircraft to South Vietnam after the surprise Easter Offensive in 1972.
Earning his wings
William Wallace Momyer was born in Muskogee, Okla., on Sept. 23, 1916. He was 14 when his father, a lawyer, died after a heart attack. He and his mother then moved to Seattle, where he would graduate from the University of Washington in 1937. He joined the Army Air Corps, earned his wings, and within five years was commander of a fighter group engaged in fierce combat over North Africa and Sicily.
While piloting a P-40 single-engine fighter on March 31, 1943, over Tunisia, then-Col. Momyer confronted 18 German dive bombers escorted by three other planes. “With utter disregard to his personal safety and the odds against him, Col. Momyer attacked the formation single-handed, destroyed four and damaged seven,” read his citation of the Distinguished Service Cross. He was credited with seven kills that day.
His other decorations included two awards of the Air Force Distinguished Service Medal, two awards of the Army Distinguished Service Medal, three awards of the Silver Star, three awards of the Legion of Merit and the Distinguished Flying Cross.