From our pre-mission briefing I copied down the following information. 59 fighter aircraft would be going into North Vietnam on a strike from over Ch. 97 (North Station). Note, this only includes those planes coming overland from Thailand and South Vietnam, not from the Gulf of Tonkin side where both Navy and Air Force strikes also originated. These 59 strike aircraft included call signs Zipper 1, 2, and 3 and Fallon 2 and 3 – all B-66s. Wedge flight of four F-4s would serve as cap for the B-66s. Two more flights of four F-4s would provide MiG cap for the mission, Thrush and Cactus flights. All remaining planes heading up North would be F-105s. Among them were Carbine and Leopard flights, both Iron Hand missions (Iron Hand or Wild Weasel missions used a two seat F-105). Iron Hand mission meant their primary concern was to locate and knock out (SAM) surface to air missile sites. Other F-105s were Tomahawk, Waco, Oakland, Cleveland, and Neptune flights. In addition to my flight, Crown 2 out of Ch. 86 (Udorn), were (Sandy) S-1, 2, 3, and 4, and (Jolly) J-09 and J-53. S-5, 6, 7, 8 and J-36 and J-37 were coming out of Ch. 89 (NKP). J-52 and J-56 were at L-36.
Midafternoon local time (0815Z), rescue forces are on station and all fighter aircraft are heading north in a routine fashion. All is well. Suddenly, there is a call on guard, “Mayday, mayday, mayday.” At 0821Z Waco flight reports that someone has been hit. Then Carbine 1 states that Carbine 3 has gone down at (longitude and latitude) 2118N10500E. There is a good chute and now two ELTs (emergency beepers) are going off in addition to the continuous transmission on guard by the downed aircraft. The three transmitters are quite distracting now, but I copy on guard that the front seater is OK. He has landed about half way up the ridge above a narrow valley. I receive no word on the back seater, but I can surely hear his ELT. Waco, Tomahawk, and Oakland flights are now on high perch for MiG Cap and any other needed assistance, along with Carbine 1, 2, and 4. At 0855, Carbine 1 reports that Carbine 4 has been hit and is going down. I hear, “Smoke, two to three miles east and slightly north.” Confusion reigns; constant chatter on guard with steady transmissions from two downed aircraft and four pilots. Carbine 1 and 2 must leave to hit their tanker for fuel. Cleveland 1 and 2 are coming in to help from their tanker. They are armed with 20 MM. Detroit flight now arrives, also with 20 MM. Now my C-130, along with S-1, 2, 3, and 4 are in Northern Laos near Ch. 97 but south of the crash sites which are well up in North Vietnam.
Meanwhile, I have been vectoring the Jollys in our direction, planning to go in only when all rescue forces are prepared for a recovery. The crash site area is damn hot! Detroit and Cleveland flights are holding high over Ch. 97. There is a report that Carbine 4 is located at 054/86 off Ch. 97. At 0916Z Detroit flight has bingo fuel and leaves for the tanker. Neptune flight was up briefly but RTB at 0922Z. Likewise, Zipper flight is low on fuel, RTB at 0923Z. Thrush and Cactus flights arrive. That’s good. Both are F-4s and well suited against MiGs. At 0929Z I hear, “#4 has been hit,” followed by additional pilot and plane ELTs. Tomahawk 1 called to report that Tomahawk 4 has gone down with a good chute (only one pilot this time, not an Iron Hand). He is located at 040/74 off Ch. 97. S-5, 6, 7, 8, and J-53 and J-09 are heading north from NKP at 0957Z. J-52, much further north, has an emergency and is forced to turn back. S-3 and 4 will escort him. Wedge, Cleveland, Waco, Thrush, Detroit, Carbine 1 and 2, and Tomahawk 1, 2, and 3 are periodically reaching bingo fuel, shuttling back to their assigned tanker and reporting back on station after refueling. This keeps me and my co-pilot very busy assigning the tanker and the radio frequency for refueling. (For example, “Waco flight hit Orange Anchor, frequency 225.8”.) In addition, we are marshaling all rescue forces further north, though it is beginning to look bleak as to our chances of mounting a rescue this late afternoon.
If the most sophisticated fighters of the time, with all their warning signals, are being blown out of the sky, how are we ever going to get in with our ensemble of slow moving, low flying aircraft to attempt a helicopter pick-up? Yet steadily northbound we move, hoping our fighters may have the chance to pound our rude unwelcoming host into submission and give us a chance of successful pick-up. Finally, at 1015Z, Sandy 1 reports that he and his wingman, S-2, are over the crash site of one of the downed Carbine aircraft. He sees both chutes are empty with no sign of either pilot. We now know that both successfully ejected but were probably captured since we could not get either pilot to respond to repeated radio transmissions. S-1 recommends that we discontinue our SAR and withdraw. I decide to hold off a bit longer hoping for further contact, either visually or by radio, with one or more of the downed pilots. At 1040Z Waco 1 calls and states he has radio contact with Tomahawk 4. He is in good condition and is on top of a ridge at an elevation of 3000 feet. His position is 055/77 of Ch. 97. Though this is good news, there appears no hope of getting a Jolly to this location and recovering the pilot before dark.
Remember, J-52, who would have been closest, has turned back with an emergency. With a heavy heart and Blue Chip’s approval, I called off the SAR at 1055Z. Most fighters begin to hit their tankers one final time and RTB. However, Tomahawk 1, 2, and 3 remained at high station a while longer, hoping to hear more from Tomahawk 4, but to no avail. Rescue forces began pulling back to the south. S-5 and 6 are to go with S-1 and 2 to L-108 and then RTB Ch. 86. J-52 lands at L-111 and the crew is picked up by their sister-ship, J-56. S-3 and 4 are to escort J-56 to Ch.86.
Our day is not over yet, however, as more bad news awaits us. Tomahawk flight calls and says, “There is a ball of smoke down below.” Sandy lead, S-1, announces over the radio, “Sandy 2, Jump, jump!” Then he tells me at 1115Z that S-2’s chances of survival look pretty grim. He relates that S-2, hit by ground fire and with his aircraft burning, spun down through a low overcast. Without an ejection seat in the Skyraider, it was doubtful he had time to get out. Five minutes later, at 1120Z, I hear on guard, “Crown 2, this is Sandy 2. I regained control just above the treetops and will try to fly it out, but it doesn’t look good. I have put the fire out, but this plane is buffeting so badly that the instrument panel is nothing but a blur in front of me.”
At 1121Z he is 095/38 off Ch. 97 and S-1, 5, and 6 are to escort S-2 to L-108. I called Skyline (call sign for L-108) and told him to turn on the runway lights at L-108 to assist Sandy flight in the emergency landing. Praise God, S-2 was able to land his crippled bird and was brought back to Udorn that night. At this time my attention was quickly diverted from S-2 as S-1 was struck by gunfire. He was due east of Ch. 97, 20 miles out when hit. S-1 stated that his plane was flyable but his wings were shot up and he was losing fuel from the wing tanks so rapidly that his fuel state was fast becoming critical. I immediately began suggesting every friendly Lima site which I thought he could reach, but there were two problems. A few of the Lima sites were secure.Choosing any of the other Lima sites was risky since they changed hands so often and our pre-mission intelligence briefing had noted that fact earlier today. I certainly did not want to put him into an enemy held airfield! The other problem was that darkness was fast approaching.Every suitable friendly field which I suggested was vetoed by him because of his low and rapidly decreasing fuel state, while all during this time I was rushing Jolly Greens in our direction as fast as they could fly.
There was one gamble we could take that might pay off for Sandy 1. There was a Lima site in the huge basin known as Plaine DesJarres (Plain of Jars or PDJ)on the border between Laos and North Vietnam,but it was not often considered friendly. (This was an area where the French had been defeated in one of the big battles of the Indochina War of the 1950s.) Sandy 1 said he didn’t have enough fuel to go further than this site so I came up with a plan. Since I didn’t feel it was prudent to call the site on the radio to alert whoever was there of our impending arrival, surprise had to be the order of the day. I told S-1 that I would lead him down the final approach to the runway, dropping night illumination flares to light his way to touchdown. I promised him that the moment his crippled plane came to a stop on the runway, a rescue Jolly would sit down beside him. Naturally, he was to jump from his plane to the Jolly in all haste since we didn’t want to wait for a welcoming committee.
Once we settled on the Plaine DesJarres plan, I instructed my loadmasters to load the flare tubes as fast as they could. This was time consuming since each million candle power flare was sealed in a metal container. They could load the flares but only I could fire them since the sequencing switch was to the left of my seat in the cockpit. There were enough tubes to hold twelve flares, but my loadmasters only had time to load six of them. Regardless, I pulled in front of S-1 and led him down the final approach, dropping all six flares in sequence. Just above the runway, I pulled up and turned left on a crosswind climb. Then, the next shocker came as I was in my turn, when S-1 made a transmission to me that I shall remember until my dying day. His voice seemed so calm, cool, and relaxed that you would have thought he was in a rocking chair on his front porch. He said, “Crown 2, what say we call that a practice approach and try again?” To my dismay, I found that he was not on the runway but was following me on the go around. The early evening was dark as pitch and when I asked him the nature of the problem, he stated,“Only two of your flares illuminated (the other four were duds) and they were drifting too far to the right to light the runway for landing.” I said, “Do you have enough fuel for another approach?” He said, “I don’t know, I hope so.”
I intended to rectify the situation if Lady Luck would just hold out. I told my loadmasters to load flares as fast as they had ever done before, because a man’s life hung in the balance. Also, this time I knew the wind direction and its approximate speed on final approach. I received it, of course, from S-1 himself, since there was no control tower to call for the wind and altimeter setting! Coming around to final I told him I would lead him down, but instead of lining up with the runway, I would fly all the way down about 150 yards left of centerline to allow for the wind drift of my flares. We had five good flares this time and my eyes could not have beheld a more beautiful sight than S-1 touching down safely on the runway as the Jolly was swooping in to sit beside him as he came to a halt. The flares, drifting directly overhead, were turning the darkness into a bright beautiful day! S-1 told me later that he ran out of fuel just as he touched down. He wasted no time abandoning his wounded, now silent bird, and climbed aboard the chopper. Jolly quickly launched and brought S-1’s pilot back to join his wingman, S-2, at Udorn where both of them were stationed.
It is ironic how fate works. As I stated previously, all rescue crews were briefed together prior to a mission. At the briefing that day I knew most of the pilots, especially the Sandy pilots, since we were quartered nearby on the base. I noticed at the briefing that Sandy 1 was Major Russell, a man in his mid-30s, while Sandy 2 was Major Gould, also about 35. I was 28 years old at the time and a Captain. Who could have ever guessed, at that mid-day briefing, the twisting, perilous journey that awaited us that day? Needless to say, there was a party going on that night at the “O” Club. We laughed a lot on the outside, celebrating the safe return of the two Sandy pilots, but cried on the inside. Deep in our hearts we mourned the loss of five of the most valiant warriors our nation could produce. The loss of three F-105s and five crew members was huge and over the years I have hoped and prayed that they were among those returned from the “Hanoi Hilton” at war’s end.