Class Of 1964 USAF Academy

Night Rescue at NKP

In late 1969 the Jolly Green squadron at Nakhon Phanom (“NKP”) was short of aircraft commanders and I was transferred TDY from Da Nang AFP to supplement their crews. We flew our HH-3E from cloud to cloud across the Ho Chi Minh trail at 20,000 feet, dodging flak all the way. Upon arriving at NKP late in the afternoon we were introduced to our assigned co-pilots. Happy to be in Thailand, where the ladies wore something other than black pajamas, we adjourned to the officer’s club for cocktails and a nice steak.

Midway through dinner the Air Police came into the dining room urgently seeking “the” Jolly Green pilots. When no one volunteered, the APs proceeded from table to table asking if you were a Jolly Green pilot. When they got to my table, I asked what the problem was and they told me that an aircraft fully loaded with ordnance had just taken off from NKP and was shot down just across the river near the Laotian border. I protested that we did not attempt night rescues, especially in hostile territory with no close air support from the Sandys (A1-Es who comprised an integral part of the SAR team). In addition, I said that I had had too many drinks to fly at the moment and was not scheduled to go on alert until 5:30 a.m. the next morning. The APs claimed to have orders from above and would not take “no” for an answer, so I was taken to my aircraft on the flight line.

It was a moonless night, the flight line was pitch black, and I did not have my co-pilot, flight engineer or para rescue jumper (“PJ”), whom I knew to be in some bar in downtown NKP. The fireball from the accident was actually visible from the flight line – it looked like a great bonfire silhouetted under mushroomed shaped trees like you find on the African plain – actually it was the triple layer canopy that is so prevalent in the jungles of Southeast Asia. Some guy kept getting on the aircraft and urging me to take off immediately. I told him that I was not going anywhere without a full crew, never dreaming that they would find the guys in downtown NKP. After a while my co-pilot showed up and the unknown guy from before again urged me to takeoff immediately.

Again, I explained that I was not going anywhere without a full crew. The guy immediately said that he would be the crew and that we should get going. I asked him if he knew how to operate a hoist. He said no. I asked him if he knew how to fire the Gatling guns we had on board for defense. He said no. I asked him if he knew anything about the hydraulics on the HH-3E. He said no. I then instructed him in no uncertain terms to get off my aircraft and not to come back until he had the rest of my crew. Shortly thereafter, much to my surprise, my engineer and PJ showed up and we took off.

The downed pilot had ejected just before his aircraft crashed into the ground and was hung up in the top layer of a triple layer canopy, almost like a marshmallow roasting in the flame of his downed aircraft. We lowered our PJ on the jungle penetrator and he was able to free the pilot from his parachute and get him safely back on board the Jolly Green. Since this had been a relatively simple rescue and there had been no enemy fire, I would normally have turned the aircraft over to my co-pilot to take us back to the base. For some reason, (too drunk I guess) I did not turn the aircraft over to my co-pilot and flew it back to NKP myself.

After we had parked the aircraft at NKP and gotten the downed pilot safely into the hands of the medics, I motioned to my co-pilot for him to get out of the crew compartment first. To my amazement, he was too drunk even to get out of his seat and required assistance in order to exit the aircraft.

But this is not the end of the story… The next morning when I showed up at the Jolly Green hooch at 5:30 a.m. to serve alert the commanding general of the base was there with his entire staff insisting on training in the HH-3E systems so that he would never again be thrown off a Jolly Green. I never learned whether he was able to take advantage of this training.

Boxer 22

A few days later, December 5, 1969, to be precise, a Phantom F-4C was shot down while placing MK-36 antipersonnel mines along a section of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos near Ban Phanop, 10 miles below Mu Gia Pass, a major entry to the trail for North Vietnam. Radio contact with the Nail FAC, who was first on the scene, confirmed that two good chutes had been seen and that a bona fide SAR operation existed. Two Sandy A-1s and two Jolly Green HH-3E rescue helicopters were scrambled from NKP and a second King KC-130 aircraft for refueling was scrambled. We all headed for the SAR area for what appeared at the time to be a normal rescue operation. Little did we suspect that this mission would turn into the largest search and rescue (SAR) operation of the Vietnam conflict up to that date.

Day 1

The Sandy aircraft and King arrived at the scene almost simultaneously at eleven o’clock. Sandy took over command from the Nail FAC and contacted the survivors. From them, he learned the pilot had landed in a work area on the west side of the Nam Ngo River, between it and Route 23. There were telephone poles lying on the ground, an outhouse, and well-worn paths leading to the river. The navigator was at the river’s edge on the east side, and behind him was a 20-foot high embankment which shielded him from the ground above. Three hundred meters behind him rose a 1,200-foot karst formation (porous limestone, containing deep fissures and sinkholes and characterized by underground caves and streams) which extended to the north. The river was 50 feet wide and the two airmen were about 70 feet apart. There was small arms fire on the west side – the east bank was quiet.

By 1120 hours, a flight of A-1s carrying antipersonnel ordnance arrived and, supplemented by F-100s and F-105s which were in the area, began the first step of the rescue operation—suppression of the ground fire. For an hour and twenty minutes, the A-1s raked the valley floor, while the jets struck against the larger guns to the north. Our two Jolly Greens, which had arrived just as this operation began, held in orbit southeast of the downed airmen’s position. Both survivors were talking with Sandy and giving him information on the location and intensity of the ground fire.

During this hosing down operation, reports increased of heavy antiaircraft fire from both sides of the river, the heaviest coming from the karst on the east side. It was soon apparent that the ground threat was greater than was originally thought and that aircraft flying down the valley were being caught in a cross-fire. Particularly troublesome was a 37-mm gun located in a cave at the foot of the karst 300 meters directly behind the navigator. Additional air support was requested. Six A-1s loaded with CBU 19/30 (riot control agents) were launched from Dan Nang; two large Jolly Green helicopters took off from NKP and were replaced there in airborne alert by two more from Udorn RTAFB; and four F-4s departed from Udorn RTAFB carrying Paveway laser-guided bombs for use against the 37-mm gun.

By 1240 hours, the ground fire had died down sufficiently to attempt a pickup. It was decided to attempt rescuing the pilot first, since the west side of the river was flatter and was the scene of the greatest ground activity. During a rapid descent into the valley from the southwest, my flight engineer and PJ notified me that we had an ever increasing trail of flak following us down to the pickup point. During the descent I observed an F-105 deliver a Paveway bomb into the mouth of a cave from which the 37-mm gun was firing; the gun was pulled behind a steel door before the Paveway bomb exploded and, incredibly, the gun was back out and firing at the F-105 as it passed by the target. A few seconds later, as I flared to a hover over the pilot, all hell broke lose, small arms and 12.7-mm ground fire came from all directions and my Jolly Green was taking hits on all sides, so I immediately evacuated the area. As fate would have it, none of my crew members were hit and we were able to limp back, unescorted, to NKP for repairs.

Five more Jolly Green attempts before dark failed to rescue the pilot. Each time a Jolly Green moved in it was driven away by gunfire. Between rescue attempts, the valley was sprayed with ordnance and CBU-19; Paveway bombs were delivered at the 37-mm guns. At 1750 hours the survivors were informed that it was becoming too dark to continue the operation and that it would resume with first light the following morning.

Day 2

Neither survivor slept the first night. They kept in radio contact with each other, but since the enemy continued his search through the bushes on the west bank, the pilot seldom came up on guard channel. The navigator remained hidden in a clump of bamboo to which he had run when he landed.

At 0600 hours of the second day Sandy made contact with the navigator (but not with the pilot), who informed Sandy that throughout the night he had heard enemy soldiers rooting through the bushes on the other side of the river looking for the pilot, but that as yet no one had appeared on his side. He was told to take cover for the next few hours as Sandy was going to put all his aircraft into the valley to hose it down. An hour later the navigator told Sandy he had just heard excited voices across the river, followed by a long burst of automatic weapons fire and a scream from the pilot.

During the early morning headquarters advised that “Indications from a usually reliable intelligence source indicated the RVN were setting up a flak trap at an unknown location. This flak trap is designed for low flying aircraft, Heli’s and C-130s, and is related to the SAR effort of Boxer 22.”

For over five hours the valley was strafed and bombed by A-1s and jets, as the navigator remained in the bamboo thicket, directing the strikes. At the same time the enemy was moving men and equipment into the area, using the downed airman as bait – an enemy tactic not unknown in past SAR operations. The Boxer 22 navigator reported that all aircraft were subjected to small arms and automatic weapons fire as they made their low-level passes down the valley along Route 23.

At mid-morning I was beset by several PJ’s at NKP requesting that they be allowed to be the “extra” PJ on my crew. That was how I learned that I was scheduled to fly a second Boxer 22 rescue mission. It was difficult for me to pick one “extra” PJ and say “no” to the rest, as they were all most anxious to make the rescue, notwithstanding the extreme danger present in any mission associated with Boxer 22. I think this incident, more than anything else, demonstrated to me the magnificent spirit of the PJ’s and their fearless zeal to rescue any crewmember in distress, no matter the potential danger involved. In any event, I welcomed the opportunity to have an extra crewmember that could fire a second Gatling gun if we had to send one PJ down on the Jungle Penetrator to rescue a survivor. I can’t say enough about the indomitable spirit of the PJ’s – many aircrew members owe their lives to the efforts of a courageous PJ.

When I arrived in the SAR area, several flights of Jolly Greens were orbiting between 18,000 and 14,000 feet in holding patterns southeast of the valley; each flight dropping down a thousand feet when the flight below them was vacated to make a rescue attempt. By noon the valley was quiet and the first Jolly Green moved in for the pickup but was driven out by ground fire before it could reach the survivor. Ten minutes later a second Jolly Green got within 50 yards of the survivor, but was hit and left the scene with severe tail vibrations. The enemy was using a familiar tactic – lying low during the hosing down operation and saving his fire for the slower and more vulnerable Jolly Greens. There were two more attempts, one in which a PJ was hit and died before they could get him back to NKP, and then it was my turn.

As I descended through 12,000 feet, there was an explosion from flak, either just above my rotors on the left or just below them on the right; in any event, the aircraft rolled ninety degrees on its side and started falling out of the air with all of the flight characteristics of a free-falling safe. My controls seemed to have no effect in attempting to right the aircraft. As I considered the situation, my choices appeared to be to crash into the karst at about 1,200 feet or to bail the crew out where they would land right in the middle of the enemy fighting so fiercely in the valley below. Under any other similar circumstances, not involving a raging battle going on below, I would have instructed the crew to bail out immediately; but given this Hobson’s choice, where either choice would result in certain death for the crew, I elected the only other available alternative – stay with the aircraft and attempt to get it flying again. Somehow, the airflow disturbance around the rotor system cleared itself and I managed to get the Jolly Green flying at about 1,000 feet (ground level was 600 feet). By this time we were in range of every small arms weapon in the valley and right in the middle of the flak trap that the RVN had been working all day to set up.

Twilight was setting in as we began to run the gauntlet composed of small arms fire, 37-mm and 57-mm cannons down the valley. Tracer rounds were easily visible, and, if it were the 4th of July back in the States, the fireworks show would have been considered spectacular. But this was not the 4th of July and the tracers crossing our path were lethal and intended to bring us down. The Sandys were all busy protecting the downed navigator and we had no assistance or cover provided by them in the chaos that was erupting around us. So I flew as low and as fast as possible down the valley in order to minimize ourselves as a target; several times the tracers came right up to where we were sitting in the cockpit and I was sure that we were milliseconds from a merciless end as they miraculously passed by my feet without hitting me or anyone else on the crew.

When we reached the end of the valley and the small arms and 37-mm flak dried up, we climbed to 2,000 feet to assess the damage. Everyone on the crew was ok, but the Jolly Green was so full of holes and leaking fuel at such a rate that we would not be able to make the 90-100 mile trip back to NKP on our own. We notified the world of our predicament and King arranged for a KC-135 out of Udorn, which happened to be in the area, to descend to 4,000 feet and refuel us, if we could climb that high. The tricky part was the KC-135 had to fly almost at stall speed and the HH-3E had to fly almost at red line in order to effectuate a successful hookup. Under the circumstances, we made it work and were able to plug into the drogue shoots at the end of the fuel lines extended by the KC-135; we were leaking fuel at just about the same rate as we were taking it on from the tanker as they flew us to within sight of NKP. We made a safe landing, but the Jolly Green was not available for service for many a day thereafter, if ever.

The last pickup on day two was made too late to allow the navigator to return to the bamboo thicket where he had been hiding for two days. Instead, he ran to a tree about 40 feet north and began to dig into its foot structure. By doing so, he left behind his seat kit with most of his survival equipment, but this also probably saved his life. About 15 minutes after dark, three soldiers came over the hill and from a distance of about 25 feet gassed the bamboo thicket where he had been with an unexpended can of CBU-19. They then fired into the clump with automatic weapons. After they left, the navigator continued digging into the tree but lost his .38 in the roots. He tried to swim the river but was too tired. While in the river he noticed a large, fairly well-leafed bush overhanging the river a short distance north. He swam to it and, with his feet in the water, hid under it. This bush remained his hiding place until he was rescued.

Day 3

By the third day, both sides were well-organized for the effort. A three hour hosing down operation got under way at first light. Jets were fragged into the area and the remaining heavy guns were knocked out. Enemy soldiers came within 25 feet of the navigator but soft ordinance and CBU-30 kept them at bay.

After one rescue attempt in which the Jolly Green received heavy ground fire, the area was sanitized for three more hours with smoke, CBU-30 and ordnance. By noon the armada was formed for another attempt. Ten A-1s formed a daisy chain on the west side of the river and 12 others set one up on the east side. The Jolly Green began its descent on the east side with A-1s circling above and around it, using their ordnance to form a protective ring around the survivor. The navigator dashed out into the river waiving the only white object he had – his escape and evasion chart. The Jolly Green overshot him, did a 360, backed up, and lowered the penetrator. It landed in the water four feet from the navigator and he was hoisted aboard. There was no appreciable gunfire. “They were all either dead or had given up,” commented a member of the rescue party.


A total of 336 sorties participated in the rescue, and 21 different types of ordnance were used, ranging from 20-mm cannon fire to air-to-ground missiles. Ten helicopters and five A-1s suffered battle damage. This episode illustrates that no two rescue operations are identical and success depends upon rapid adaptability to the location, terrain, and enemy tactics. For the survivor, it was an indication of the amount of effort that would be expended to save a downed crewmember. For the units involved, it was the greatest training exercise yet of the war – for both sides.

That night I attended the most euphoric celebration I ever expected to experience in the Jolly Green hooch. People would walk into the hooch and someone would tear a patch or other item off their uniform and someone else would rip their sleeve or pants leg until everyone was walking around in tatters. Every tear or rip represented a badge of pride and no one objected to the destruction of their clothes. Eventually reconnaissance patrols were sent out to find more “celebrators,” especially nurses, who enthusiastically participated in the release of such deep emotional feelings of everyone until all hours of the night. I truly never expect in this lifetime that I will experience again such a wild release of group tension and fear only to be replaced by feelings of pride, confidence and accomplishment.

Early the next morning I flew to Bangkok, where my wife had just arrived on board a chartered Super Constellation from Georgia along with three hundred other anxious wives and screaming babies for a one week R&R. Needless to say, the Boxer 22 mission was not discussed. In fact, some 40 years later, this is the first time I have ever written about it, although I often think of the lessons learned: 1) You can’t believe anything you read in the news papers; 2) Life is not fair; 3) The good guys don’t always wear white hats; and 4) most importantly, the extremes to which American forces will go to rescue a downed crewmember – this fact alone distinguishes the American fighting man from those of all other nations and arms our aircrews with the greatest confidence as they set about accomplishing their assigned missions.

Post Script

On December 14, 2010, “Jolly Green 22,” one of the HH-3Es that I flew on several missions in Vietnam, was dedicated in the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson AFB as an Exhibit in the Modern Flight Gallery. The aircraft had been completely restored into combat configuration, camouflage and all, and it looked beautiful. Many of the Jolly Green crewmembers who participated in the “Boxer 22” SAR were in attendance and all were celebrated as true War Heroes. One of the PJ’s was kind enough to tell my wife that I was a true legend among Jolly Green crew members and she actually believed him.

Night Rescue Attempt of Marine Pilot

In the early evening of April 21, 1970 a SAR Force, consisting of 2 Jolly Greens [HH-3E’s] and 4 Sandys [A1-E’s], was scrambled to rescue a Marine Pilot who was downed in an area heavily defended by opposing forces west of Da Nang, South Vietnam. The Jolly Green that I was flying was designated the “low” bird – i.e. it was my job to go to the pilot and rescue him as soon as the ‘Sandys” declared the area sanitized sufficiently that a rescue attempt should be made. As darkness set in the Sandys set about “softening up” the area surrounding the pilot for a rescue attempt. After a certain level of darkness, rescue missions in a hostile environment are normally aborted, to be resumed at first light the next day. My co-pilot was the squadron Ops Officer and we determined that in this situation, where the Sandys had been working hard to soften up the area around the pilot, at least one attempt should be made before we left the scene for the evening, not withstanding that full darkness had set in by that time. The Sandys laid down smoke between the pilot and the opposing forces and I commenced a run to the downed pilot.

We began taking hostile fire as soon as we started our descent – in the dark the sky glowed yellow and red with all the smoke and artillery fire occurring around us. When I approached the downed pilot’s position, my aircraft started taking direct hits and my flight engineer was severely injured. We were taking shrapnel in the cockpit and the low hydraulic pressure lights came on. I immediately exited the area and the crew began to tend to the wounded and to assess the damage to the aircraft. The PJ (Para-Rescue Jumper) determined that the Flight Engineer was in critical condition and needed immediate trauma surgery. We figured out that the primary hydraulic system was dead and that we were now flying only on the backup system. In addition, our engine oil pressure was fluctuating wildly and the main transmission was running roughly.

Notwithstanding the mechanical problems, we determined that we had no choice but to press on back to Da Nang air base as quickly as possible to get medical attention for our wounded crew member. During the return flight we discovered that our landing gear could not be lowered due to the lack of hydraulic pressure. Somehow the airframe stayed together long enough to get us back to base. As we approached Da Nang we learned that our Squadron Commander was in the control tower and that he had ordered mattresses laid out on the tarmac so that we could make a safe landing – standard emergency procedure with no landing gear.

As I approached the designated landing area, I noticed that there was an ambulance waiting nearby, so I brought the Jolly Green to a hover right next to the ambulance in order to transfer our wounded crew member to medical personnel at the earliest possible moment. While in a hover two things happened in addition to disembarking the wounded crew member: first, our squadron commander in the tower was issuing frantic orders for me to land on the mattresses that he had had laid out for a safe landing; second, the ground maintenance personnel had manually pulled the landing gear down and locked it into position for landing. The crew chief on the ground plugged his speakerphone into the outside of the Jolly Green and informed me that the ambulance was clear and that I could safely set the Jolly Green down right where it was.

For some reason, when I landed safely not using the mattress, my squadron commander went into orbit. My co-pilot (remember he was the Ops Officer) and I were escorted directly to the squadron briefing room where I was threatened with a court martial for disobeying a direct verbal order. At some point during this chewing out my co-pilot looked down at the legs of my flight suit and noticed that I was bleeding profusely. I was immediately sent to the hospital to deal with the shrapnel lodged in my legs.

The next day when I viewed the damage to the Jolly Green aircraft, I was amazed to learn that among other damage a 37-mm shell had penetrated through the three sheets of armor plate shielding the hydraulic system and came to a halt only when it impacted my map case (5 inches of let-down plates), which was hanging about waist level just behind my seat. The map case saved my life; I still have it and you can still smell the gun powder residue.

Also, the next day when the adrenaline of the night before had diminished and cooler heads prevailed, I learned that my efforts of the night before were being submitted for a Silver Star, that my co-pilot was being submitted for a DFC and that the PJ and Flight Engineer were being submitted for Metals, all of which were ultimately approved.

Lesson: “No good deed goes unpunished.”

Post Script

My Flight Engineer survived and eventually returned to flight status and the downed Marine Pilot was rescued by another Jolly Green.
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