Excerpt from Volume 1, Chapter 5: SPAD, Night Rescue Mission, by Gary Gottschalk, USN
A-1H, 6 November 1965
Date of hire by Western Airlines: 7/15/1968
It was twilight as our two Skyraiders approached the search area for the downed Thud pilot, 50 miles west of Hanoi. (Thud was a nickname the pilots gave the F-105 Thunderchief). We began a systematic search of an area of terrain that consisted of precipitous karst ridges and mountains, with dense jungle canopies and lush vegetation in between. As we were searching the area our communication radios were tuned again to the frequency of the survival radio that we hoped the pilot on the ground would have. After perhaps fifteen minutes of searching, with a three quarter moon rising above the horizon, the downed pilot made contact with us by use of his hand held radio in response to our attempts to contact him. He described being located under a high dense jungle canopy. That was a big step toward enabling us to locate his exact position as he made attempts to describe his location with reference to how close we were flying to him. We were close but we needed to know the position accurately enough to call in the rescue helicopter. We continued for several minutes trying to zero in on the location but without success. By then the moon was far enough above the horizon to illuminate the terrain so we could safely fly a few hundred feet above the jungle canopy.
After about ten minutes with both of us searching at low level among areas of patchy fog, Cdr. Smith directed me to climb to 2000 feet above the ground and circle while plotting as accurately as possible the location of the search area. Meanwhile, he remained low and continued the search for the exact location of the pilot. I climbed and started associating the main features of the immediate area with what was on the charts. Fortunately, the moonlight and the favorable weather made an accurate plot possible. Cdr. Smith continued the search while still in radio contact with the pilot on the ground, although unable to find his exact location. Finally, he had an idea that was to prove successful. He asked the pilot on the radio if he had a flashlight. The reply was no but he did have a cigarette lighter. The next question was whether the pilot on the ground was able to determine when the airplane was flying close by or overhead. The answer was, “affirmative.” Cdr. Smith then instructed the pilot to flick his cigarette lighter whenever he heard the airplane approaching his position. This was an attempt to get a glimpse of that lighter through the dense jungle canopy. Many more low passes were made over perhaps a one square mile area until finally Cdr. Smith did get the lifesaving glimpse of the lighter. He saw the flicker for a short few seconds in the darkness below and it marked the position exactly. The next instruction he gave was for me, while still circling above, to plot the position when I saw him momentarily flash his navigation lights (we were flying with no navigation lights so we wouldn’t makeourselves a target for enemy fire). I knew his approximate position and was looking in the general direction of his aircraft when the navigation lights flashed on for a few seconds. It gave me enough time to see his location and the location of the downed pilot clearly, and I was able to plot this position on my chart. That plot led to the successful rescue of the pilot the following day withthe actual rescue being carried out by the highly respected Air Force crews of the huge HH-3 rescue helicopters known as Jolly Green Giants.
A flight of four Air Force F-4C Phantoms arrived on scene to relieve us and to maintain a presence on the scene. By this time Cdr. Smith and I had been airborne for over four hours with nearly a two hour return flight to the Oriskany ahead of us. We took up a course approximately the reverseof our flight inland and were conserving fuel as much as possible. There were no available friendly airfields where we could divert for fuel on the return route to the Oriskany. The closest friendly field was Da Nang which was further away than the ship, so with about two hours of fuel remaining, fuel conservation was very much a concern.
After flying east for about ten minutes, I again received a weak indication on the homing needle of my automatic direction finder, still set on the survival radio frequency. After calling Cdr. Smith about the indication, he decided, in spite of our low fuel situation, to head north in the direction of the signal. It was a similar situation to the flak trap we were lured into earlier in the flight. Perhaps ten minutes later we saw a brief fire flare up in the direction of the signal and then both the fire and the signal disappeared. We were later to learn that the signal and fire were brief so as not to divulge the downed pilot’s location to the enemy. I plotted that location on my chart and without much more delay in the area, we continued on the route back to the Oriskany. Days later we were to learn that another Air Force F-105 Thud pilot was rescued at that location.
Fuel and flying time were now weighing heavily on our minds. As we continued on a southeasterly course, heading out over the Gulf of Tonkin, we passed off the coast near Vinh, one of the most heavily defended areas in North Vietnam. As we continued over the dark ocean, Cdr. Smith conceived an idea that was to prove vital in our eventual safe recovery aboard Oriskany. The rescue ship was stationed in the Gulf of Tonkin, off the coast near the Demilitarized Zone (theDMZ, which divided North and South Vietnam), and it was coming into radio range as we flew in that direction. The communications frequencies that Cdr. Smith so wisely obtained before the flight were put to use and after several attempts to establish contact with the rescue ship he was successful. He asked the ship, which had powerful radio transmitters, to relay a request to Captain Connolly on the Oriskany, informing him of our fuel state and our route of flight. If Captain Connolly could change course and steam the Oriskany toward our route of flightfor the next hour, it would put us 30 miles closer and would be crucial with our dwindling fuel state.
Most fortunately for Cdr. Smith and me, Captain Connolly was willing and able to comply with the request. The decision for him to change course on our behalf was complex, involving many priorities. The state of air operations then in progress aboard the Oriskany would be the main issue and fortunately they were not operating. If air operations had been in progress, Captain Connolly would have had to hold his course into the wind. As it was, he took a course in our direction as we continued flying at maximum range power settings. (Captain Connolly showed the same leadership and courage that he had shown on 14 January 1943 as a 22 year old Ensign, when he was awarded the Navy Cross for an action near Guadalcanal. His Motor Torpedo Boat scored several torpedo hits on much larger Japanese Cruisers in a surprise attack.)
The decision to fly toward the Oriskany with such a low fuel state offered us a frustrating set of options. There was a strong possibility of having to ditch short of the ship with the hope of being located by a search and rescue helicopter. A ditching could have been attempted alongside the rescue ship with a possible rescue, but that also depended on making a successful night ditching. Another option would have been to ditch just offshore and make it to land, hoping for a pickup in the morning before being located by enemy forces. In any case, ditching or bailing out were the riskiest options so continuing on to the Oriskany and making it onboard or ditching close by was the course of action we took.
As we flew on toward the Oriskany with the big piston engines turning slowly for maximum range, it became increasingly apparent that the fuel situation was deteriorating from that of possible to probable fuel starvation. Cdr. Smith, in another of his typical displays of leadership, magnanimously instructed me to make the first approach for a carrier arrested landing. I did not take exception. I was the first of our two successful landings aboard that welcome flight deck as theAngel rescue helicopter orbited on the starboard side. My Spad came to an arrested halt after a very careful night visual approach. As the tail wheel of the conventional landing gear settled to the deck into a nose up attitude, the big engine coughed its last and stopped of fuel starvation, after a flight of six and six tenths hours. An aircraft tug quickly towed my now silent aircraft off the landing area with the fuel gauges reading zero! Within seconds, Cdr. Smith touched down with his engine continuing to run as he taxied away from the arresting cable. It was not until years later that I learned from one of the other ships officers that Captain Connolly extended the Oriskany into dangerously shallow waters for the purpose of holding course into the wind for our arrested landings. That, in my opinion, was above and beyond any call of duty or responsibility.
Rear Admiral Ralph W. Cousins, Commander Carrier Division Nine, was aboard the Oriskany that night and was waiting for the two of us to brief him about the search. We were escorted into his ships quarters just after midnight while still in our sweaty flight gear. As a twenty five year old Lieutenant JG I was in awe of this naval officer and pilot, almost the same age as my father who was born in 1915. It was more than his rank that held me in awe. Admiral Cousins was a veteran of the Battle of the Coral Sea in World War II and had been awarded the Navy Cross. He was attached to the carrier USS Lexington when she was lost in that battle on May 7, 1942.
Admiral Cousins quickly set me at ease as Cdr. Smith and I began to brief him on the evolution of the flight. One of his first questions to us was, “Do you have an accurate plot of the downed pilot’s position?” It was my distinct pleasure to cite that position confidently from my chart and, in addition, to pass on to him the position of the other possible downed pilot.
The daring and innovative leadership of Cdr. Gordon Smith enabled me to make the accurate position plots that led to additional daring the next morning with the successful rescue of two pilots by the helicopter crews. To say that it is highly gratifying to have been involved in the rescue of two of our downed pilots would be a severe understatement. Words fail. I flew many other combat missions with various objectives, many of them considered to be successful, mission accomplished.
None of them approach the sense of accomplishment that I feel about this rescue mission.