The mission was a "double cycle" in that the front half of the mission was "out of country" as in Laos, and after air-refueling the second half was done "in country," that is RVN (Republic of Vietnam). The purpose of the VR (visual reconnaissance) was to locate trucks, truck parks and trans shipment points/supply dumps along the Ho Chi Min Trail so that we could call airstrikes on targets found to destroy them and deny their use in the war effort by the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong.
After a short delay Chip and I launched at 0805 and proceeded to complete the out of country portion of the mission. At 0900 we went to the KC-130 tanker to take on 7,000 pounds of fuel, leaving the tanker at 0920. We contacted "Sperry Control" to learn of any "slow mover" forward air controller in the area, from the DMZ (demilitarized zone) to Cam Duc. Contact with the slow mover FACs was unsuccessful; we proceeded to work from the DMZ south.
Our practice "on the trail" was to fly at an altitude of 400 to 800 feet above ground at a speed of 450 knots, or as fast as we could go at full throttle, at no slower than 400 knots. If our speed bled below 400 knots, we would maneuver off the trail to build up our energy before returning to the trail. Also, we were constantly "jinking," never more than 4 to 6 seconds without a hard maneuver to throw off the aim of any gunners on the ground. Almost all crewmembers would get airsick at first until they became accustomed to the hard maneuvering. It was worse for the guy in the back, since the pilot in front did all the hands-on flying while the guy in the back did most of the looking. It takes several weeks to learn the train system and how to look or what to look for, but it is amazing how much one can see at 400-plus knots and 400 to 800 feet while wildly maneuvering.
Another cardinal rule was to stay "on the trail" for no more than 5 to 10 miles at a time. Any more and one would be guaranteed to be seeing tracers flying by the canopy.
We worked our way south into the A Shau Valley. Near the south end of the valley, near the abandoned/destroyed airfield, we spotted what appeared to be a pull-off area, possibly an entrance to a truck park or supply dump. I did a left turn around to return for a second look at the area, building the speed to 450-plus and descending to 100 to 200 feet AGL (above ground level), passing the point of interest from east to west. Seeing only what appeared to be a turn-around point, I executed a hard turn left to the south, felt a "thump." I leveled the wings and initiated a climb.
The engine fire light was on and the control stick would not move left of center, with the aircraft rolling slowly to the right. I told Chip to get on the controls too, and he did, with no effect.
As the aircraft rolled through 90-degrees bank and pointed at the 1,500-foot hill I was trying to clear, I commanded, "Get Out, Get Out!" I pulled the lower ejection handle. I recall the canopy disappearing, a short delay, then a slow smooth ride up the rails. Then all was a blur until the canopy opened no recollection of the opening shock. I had time for one panoramic view of the A Shau Valley from left to right, saw the fireball of the aircraft impacting the mountains, looked down to see trees coming up, and was in them.
Chip was nowhere to be seen. I thought he was dead as I had not seen his parachute. I reached for the radio in the left side of my survival vest, but it was gone, along with my .38 S&W revolver. So I got out the second radio from the right pouch and broadcast a Mayday. An Army aircraft Vanguard answered and initiated search-and-resuce procedures.
The ejection occurred at about 1010. Things got busy. I drank some water, grabbed the nearest tree trunk, released my parachute fillings and shinnied to the ground. My plan all along was to make it to the highest point nearby, which wasn't far. Near the top of the hill I found a hole made by a tree rooting and falling over and crawled into it.
I made contact with the A-1s, when they arrived. They pinpointed my position based on my flashing them with my signal mirror, which was very effective. Somewhat over an hour passed before the Jolly Green Giants (rescue helicopters) of the 37th Aerospace Rescue & Recovery Squadron in Da Nang arrived. There were many aircraft around, perhaps six A-1s, my commanding officer Lt. Col. Shea and Maj. Page in a TA-4F and others.
The first Jolly Green, Jolly 30, began his approach to pick me up. On the approach he had one of his engines fail so he had to abort the run and return to Da Nang. So Jolly 67 set up to come in. He thought there were back-up Jollys coming. There weren't, but he came in! He dropped the jungle penetrator. I fairly flew down the hill to get it, dropped the seat, had a little difficulty fastening the retaining straps around my back, gave a thumbs up and hung on for the ride. The cable got tangled in the trees a bit and I may have banged into some of the trees, but don't remember feeling any of it. I just hung on and let the professionals do their thing. We were trained to not try to assist the crew as we can be more of a hindrance than a help.
I was very happy to be in the helo. Jolly 67 then hovered over to attempt to pick up Chip. As the helicopter hovered over Chip's location, the crewmen/gunners sighted NVA approaching and the aft crewman (gunner in back of the helicopter) opened up with his mini gun and blew the bad guys down the hill while the other two crewmen used their rifles out the forward two doors. The pickup attempt for Chip was aborted and Jolly 67 departed the area for Da Nang.
Upon landing at Da Nang a flight surgeon came on board to give me a quick check over before going to the dispensary for a more thorough checkup. No broken bones were found, just a few bumps and bruises; nothing that a Band-Aid couldn't take care of. When exiting the helicopter we were all hosed down briefly, a sort of tradition. I also learned that my rescue was Jolly 67's first combat rescue, hence all the celebration. Just getting back was good enough for me!
Chip was rescued about an hour or so after I was. His was a more precarious rescue as the NVA had more time to organize their forces. The Sandy's et al (Douglas A-1 Skyraiders, attack aircraft that accompanied the helicopters) had a lot more work to do clearing out gun positions before the final rescue attempt could be made. Chip's Jolly was piloted by the 37th ARRS squadron commander, and it was his and his co-pilot's first combat rescue as well. The aircraft took a number of hits during the pickup, including one round through the tail rotor drive shaft.
An interesting sidelight is that Chip and I were on the ground about 3,000 meters due south of the abandoned/destroyed A Shau airfield. Four years before (March 10, 1966), USAF Maj. Bernie Fisher was the recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor for landing his A-1 Skyraider on A Shau airfield's debris-strewn runway to rescue a fellow A-1 pilot Maj. (D.W. "Jump") Myers, whose A-1 had belly landed on the field after taking disabling hits. Fisher and Meyers were supporting a special forces team defending their position near the A Shau airfield.
The day after the rescue the effects of the opening shock of the parachute were felt. I could not sit up getting out of bed, having to roll on my side to push myself up to the sitting position. Minor inconvenience.
A debriefing was held with the rescue forces to discuss what went right and what went wrong. From my perspective one cannot argue success. A few things were identifed that could be improved for future efforts, but I was pleased with the results. Chip and I were well trained for this eventuality.
Several months later after my discharge and while enrolled as a freshmen in college, a Purple Heart medal arrived in the mail. It seems there is an obscure regulation that allowed the Purple Heart if an aircrew is downed by hostile fire. At first I thought it was a cheap way to earn the Purple Heart. Upon reflection, however, had I not been rescued, the options were not good. Either way a very long and difficult escape and evasion or capture, and at best an even longer and more difficult trip to the Hanoi Hilton for about four years of less than stellar accommodation and treatment, if I even got there at all. The Purple Heart would have been sent to my parents. So I wear it without apology.
I am deeply indebted to all who had a part in our rescue. From the Jolly 67 crew, Maj. H. Copperthite, Capt. D. Beattie and crewmen, to the A-1 pilots, to the men who maintained and installed the ejection seats, packed the parachutes, and many others who are unknown but had a part in the rescue.