Colonel (ret.) Charles B. “Chuck” DeBellevue is America’s top ace of the Vietnam War and the last ace to serve on active duty in the United States Air Force. Colonel DeBellvue was first selected as an Eagle by Air Command and Staff College’s Gathering of Eagles in 1988 and subsequently honored in 2002, 2003, 2008, and 2010, respectively. Born on 15 August 1941 in New Orleans, Louisiana, he attended the University of Southwestern Louisiana earning a commission as a Second Lieutenant through the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps in 1968. After completing Undergraduate Navigator Training at Mather Air Force Base, California in 1969, he was selected to be in the first all navigator class to train as Weapons Systems Officers (WSO) in the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona. In 1971, he was sent to the renowned 555th Tactical Fighter Squadron, nicknamed “Triple Nickel”, at Udorn Royal Thai Air Base.
It was there that Colonel DeBellevue would make history scoring six aerial victories against North Vietnamese MiGs, garnering him the distinction of becoming the first WSO to earn the title of “ace.” On 10 May 1972, he and his pilot, Captain Steve Ritchie, were flying as number three in a four-ship supporting Operation LINEBACKER when they found themselves in a head-on engagement with four MiG-21s Fishbeds northwest of Hanoi. As they closed, Lead and two each shot one down. Ritchie and DeBellevue fired an AIM-7 at a MiG-21 at maximum range but the MiG pilot avoided it. They turned behind a fourth MiG-21, which they destroyed. Shortly after that, Lead was shot down. While this was DeBellevue’s first kill of the war, it came at a high price. His roommate was the Lead WSO. On 8 July 1972, DeBellevue and Ritchie again found themselves head-on with MiG-21s. This engagement quickly turned into a hard turning dogfight. They obtained a boresight radar lock on one MiG and the crew fired two AIM-7s at the edge of their envelopes, both of which found their marks. The crew then locked up the remaining MiG and shot it down with a single AIM-7. The entire engagement lasted only 89 seconds. On 28 August 1972, flying the same F-4 in which he scored his first kill, DeBellevue again scored another kill north of Hanoi with a long range AIM-7 shot which gave him a total of four kills. On 9 September 1972, DeBellevue teamed up with Capt John Madden on a mission near Phuc Yen Air Base. They shot down two MiG-19 Farmers with AIM-9 missiles giving DeBellevue his fifth and sixth victories of the war and making him America’s leading ace in the Vietnam War.
For his outstanding airmanship, DeBellevue was awarded the Mackay Trophy in 1972. Following the Vietnam War, DeBellevue entered pilot training and returned to the Phantom II as a pilot and held various flying and staff positions including commanding both the 432d Combat Support Group at Misawa Air Base, Japan, and the 95th Air Base Wing at Edwards Air Force Base, California.
Colonel DeBellevue’s final assignment was commanding Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps Detachment 440 at the University of Missouri. He retired in 1998 after 30 years of distinguished service. His decorations include the Air Force Cross, three Silver Stars, three Legions of Merit, and six Distinguished Flying Crosses. On May 20, 2015, DeBellevue received the Congressional Gold Medal in a ceremony in Washington D.C. The Congressional Gold Medal is the highest honor Congress can bestow on behalf of the American people. Colonel DeBellevue and his wife, Sally, currently reside in Edmond, Oklahoma.