Chapter 4

Out in Front

By early March of 1972, I had flown nearly 150 hours of combat in the A-1 and had 211 hours in the Skyraider. It was time for me to be out front as a flight lead. Normally everyone got a chance to check out as a flight lead and I felt I was more than ready for mine. Now I would have to look out for more than just myself. Any stupidity on my part would jeopardize not only my self, but also my wingman.

My apprenticeship was nearly over and I was pleased about that. The action during this time of the year was mostly in the Barrel Roll (northern Laos) with an occasional sortie in Steel Tiger (southern Laos). With only a limited bombing campaign underway against North Vietnam, there was not too much Search and Rescue (SAR) activity. That was about to change.

I had been in theater for about five months and was making plans for my mid-tour leave back to the States. The plan was for a two week trip back to Minnesota to be with my wife and young son. My parents and siblings were also there in the Twin Cities area. My departure was set up for the end of March.




 Date  Mission # Sortie Length  Total A-1 Time  Total Combat Time  Aircraft
 7 Mar 51 2.9

152.1 A-1H 134526

My journal entry for 7 Mar 1972

[Hobo 40] First lead mission with Boli/Smith... Haze at L-05...Strike ... Declare IFE for wingman with battle damage... Damage turns out to be a/c outlet hole.

Southern Laos Map

This is my chance to be out front making the decisions for the conduct of the flight. I was leading a pair of the "old heads" around who were in a "fat face" while I was in an H model. Fred Boli was one of the StanEval check pilots and Ron Smith was another of the more experienced flight leads. Leading an E around with an H model was not without its problems. With the same ordnance load, the H was much cleaner and required lower power settings for a given airspeed. Invariably, an E on the wing of an H would burn much more fuel. As a flight lead, I just had to make sure I gave them plenty of power so they could stay in position.

The target area weather in Steel Tiger was hazy which made our job more difficult. The haze layer extended above our altitude capability so we were forced to spend the entire mission in it. The assigned task for this mission was to cover some choppers for a MedEvac out of L-05, Paksong, which was the main airfield on the Bolovens Plateau. Strike results were not given.

Now the fun part. During the "battle damage" check following the strike, I saw a hole in the wingman's aircraft and dutifully reported this to them. They reported that all systems indicated normal and the aircraft was flying normally. Nevertheless, I declared an emergency for the wingman which would ensure that crash rescue forces would be alerted at NKP. If the damage had been more serious, we would have gone in to Ubon, which was closer by about 50 miles.

Following our landing at NKP, I was asked to go over to the E model for which I had declared the IFE. Seems that the maintenance troops could not find the hole I had seen in flight. I moved around to the rear of the aircraft right below the horizontal tail and found the hole. It had been put there during manufacture as an outlet for the rear compartment heating system. Oops. Better safe than sorry. I did take a much closer look at both the E and H models on the ground before my next flight.






 Date  Mission # Sortie Length  Total A-1 Time  Total Combat Time  Aircraft
 12 Mar 52 4.4

156.5 A-1J 142021

My journal entry for 12 Mar 1972

[Hobo 44 as lead with Maj Zeke Encinas] MedEvac LS 20 strike... Probably the closest I came to busting my ass over there... Strike in marginal weather with Zeke... On one pull off I got into the clouds headed toward a ridge... I pulled up and the a/s got down to 80 knots... I added full power and bunted over... I was still in the clouds and when I broke out I was in about a 20 degree dive and had made it over the ridge with not too much to spare... whew!!!... LS20


This mission was a memorable one because I almost died. I'm sure there were times before and after this mission that bullets fired at me missed by only a little, in fact I took battle damage both before and after this mission. But those times were different. It was one thing to find out after the fact that there was someone out there trying to kill me, but quite a different situation to experience the terror of not knowing whether I would die in the next fleeting second or not.

The mission started innocently enough with the task of helicopter escort followed by release from this primary mission to find a strike with one of the Ravens in the Barrel Roll. The weather was definitely a factor, but no different from many similar missions in the past few weeks. What was different, was that I was leading, and if this played a role in the scenario that was about to unfold, I'm not sure.

As we began to strike the target, Zeke and I were having a little bit of difficulty keeping each other in sight. As I pulled off the target after releasing my ordnance, I bent it around to see the ordnance impact and to look for Zeke. The next thing I knew I was in the soup. We were in a valley between two ridges and I was headed pretty much perpendicular to the valley. That is to say, right at one of the ridges defining the valley itself. There were two possible courses of action that I could have taken at this point. I could have increased the bank angle and pulled the nose back down through the horizon until I got back down beneath the base of the clouds. That would leave a tricky maneuver to right the aircraft and initiate a pull up to avoid the ground over rising terrain. The second option - and the one I chose - was to get on the gauges, level the wings, add power, and climb as high as possible. I knew the elevation of the surrounding ridges, even though they were hidden in the clouds. My only chance was to be able to zoom climb high enough to clear the ridge and hopefully come out on the other side. If, during the climb, I broke out of the clouds on top, then I would simply stay there until I found a hole where I could descend back through.

I got the nose about 30 degrees above the horizon and watched as the airspeed bled down below 100 knots. I had the sick feeling that the elevation gain was not enough, but I was committed. I slowly pushed the stick forward in a bunting maneuver and watched as the airspeed bottomed out at 80 knots. Normally this would have been below stall speed at "one G", but I was less than one G in the bunt maneuver. As the nose dropped below the horizon, the airspeed started to increase. That was the good news. The bad news was that the altitude stopped increasing and began to decrease. I still thought I may not clear the ridge. As the airspeed increased above 100 knots, I stabilized the dive angle at about 20 degrees. After what seemed like an eternity, I broke out beneath the clouds and suddenly heard Zeke calling for me on the radio.

During the entire time while I was in the clouds struggling to get over the ridge, I heard nothing on the radio despite the fact that Zeke later said he called several times. While maneuvering to save my self, I was totally absorbed in flying the plane. Nothing else mattered at the time. I made no radio transmissions.

Once down below the weather, I rejoined with Zeke, and made a couple more passes to clean the wings of ordnance. My heart was not in it however. Another mistake I made was to not reduce my weight by jettisoning the remaining external stores. I was too engrossed in flying the aircraft.

Later during my career during safety briefings I remember being briefed about aircraft accidents where the pilot made no transmissions prior to impacting the ground. I know exactly why that was. I lived through it and understand completely what happened. During situations such as the one I had just experienced, 100 percent of the pilot's attention is directed at flying the aircraft. Nothing else matters at a time like this.





 Date  Mission # Sortie Length  Total A-1 Time  Total Combat Time  Aircraft
 13 Mar 53 3.0

159.5 A-1E(-5) 135141

My journal entry for 13 Mar 1972

[Hobo 44 as Flight lead] Strike in Barrel Roll

Nothing in my journal to speak of with no mention made of wingman's name. After the previous mission, just as well.








 Date  Mission # Sortie Length  Total A-1 Time  Total Combat Time  Aircraft
 16 Mar 54 2.1

161.6 A-1H 139608

My journal entry for 16 Mar 1972

[Sandy 08 as wingman] First Sandy deployment to DaNang with Bob Burke.

This was a deployment mission to the FOL at DaNang. The typical rotation was two single seat A-1s (H or J models) and two pilots for six days. A more complete explanation of this process is found in Chapter 3.

Captain Robert Burke was an easy going guy who had his stuff together. I was excited about the chance to fly out of DaNang.

This was simply a deployment mission with no strike enroute. After landing, the aircraft were refueled and cocked for ground SAR alert. We flew the same tail number for the entire six day deployment, which gave us a chance to become familiar with the aircraft we would be flying for that week.






 Date  Mission # Sortie Length  Total A-1 Time  Total Combat Time  Aircraft
 19 Mar 55 3.4

165.0 A-1H 139608

 Date  Mission # Sortie Length  Total A-1 Time  Total Combat Time  Aircraft
 19 Mar 56 2.2

167.2 A-1H 139608


My first journal entry for 19 Mar 1972

[Sandy 08 as wingman] SAR for Nail 31A/B... Major, Major [Maj Don Milner] and wingman came to DaNang to help in SAR [on the 18th of March]... they launched and shortly thereafter we [on the ground at DaNang] got word that Faas had been shot down [in A-1J 142063].... We then got launched [on the 19th]... Enroute we heard that Major, Major had taken a bad hit [in A-1H 134551] (see pictures)... Burker started to have radio problems so I had the lead for a while... Eventually, Burker got the lead back and we executed... My first real taste of ground fire and my first look at air bursts (37mm or 57mm)... Well planned SAR by Ron Smith... The airbursts never stopped, even during the pickup... On egress, I lost Burker and joined up on another A-1 flight... [Glen] Priebe never found the SAR in the Catcher's Mitt... RTB to NKP with a fly-by with King and the Jollys...SS


Sandy Lineup for Nail 31 SAR

Images from the Nail 31 SAR

Nail 31 SAR story in Pacific Stars and Stripes

Official Nail 31 SAR patch

This was a real shoot-em-up where we lost an A-1 and had at least three others damaged, one of them severely. Mike Faas was shot down on Day 1 of the SAR (18 Mar) while flying A-1J 142063, and Major Don Milner took serious damage (flying A-1H 134-551) when a large caliber AAA round went through his right flap, then exploded, peppering the aft fuselage with shrapnel. This also occurred on Day 1 of the SAR effort. The weather in the SAR area was hazy with scattered to broken clouds at about 5,000 feet on both days.

Nail 31 was an OV-10 from the 23rd TASS (Tactical Air Support Squadron) with two pilots on board and was down near Delta 47 (also known as "The Catcher's Mitt") in Steel Tiger (southern Laos). Both pilots were relatively unhurt, but the enemy was deployed in force around them. Several attempts at a pickup on the 18th of March were repulsed by the enemy. Somewhere down there was a "nine-level" gunner who had three aircraft to his credit on the first day. In all, 15 A-1 sorties were flown in direct support of this SAR on this first day. During this first day, one of the survivors, Nail 31A, shot and killed an NVA soldier and took away his AK-47 assault rifle.

Bob and I launched from DaNang as Sandy 07 and 08 at around 0830 local time on Day 2. The remainder of the SAR forces came out of NKP. We proceeded to the SAR area and rejoined with the Jolly Green helicopters who were holding near the area. I briefly had the lead of our two ship as Burker was sorting out some radio difficulties. He took the lead back a short time later.

Captain Ron Smith was on scene commander as Sandy low when we arrived with 1stLt Randy Scott as his wingman. We were shown the survivors' locations and were soon ready to execute the rescue plan. Since there was at least one active large caliber AAA piece in the area that was not silenced, we were all briefed to stay low and watch for AAA.

At the execute command, the Jolly Green raced in on the tree tops escorted by our four A-1s. We had both survivors location's pinpointed so we were able to put down continuous protective cover around the hovering helicopter. I distinctly remember seeing the airbursts from the AAA guns exploding above us. This was the first time that I had seen AAA this large. It got my attention. Although the Jolly Green remained in the area for the pickup no more that five minutes, it seemed like it was much longer. The rescue occurred just after 1000 local time.

Following the pickup of the second survivor, the Jolly Green egressed to the southwest escorted by all four Sandys. At this time, I was heading about east, so I had to bend it around tight to get out of there and provide some sort of support. Once clear of the area, the Jolly Green began a climb to a higher altitude. I remember having a very difficult time keeping up since I had bled off what little airspeed I had during the hard turn to follow the Jolly Green. I lost sight of my flight lead (a definite no-no), but was able to keep sight of the Jolly Green. Soon enough I saw a flight of A-1s that I joined on. Turned out to be another flight, but we soon got it sorted out and I got back with Burker.

The SAR force returned to NKP and we joined two A-1s on each wing of the King HC-130 who had the Jolly Greens in tow. We brought the whole gaggle for a 500 foot low pass down the runway at NKP then split up into our respective formations for landing. Nice little get together after landing, but Burker and I had to turn the aircraft and get ready to head back to DaNang to finish our Sandy rotation. Fourteen A-1 sorties were flown in direct support of this SAR on Day 2.

Other accounts of this SAR are provided by Randy Jayne, Ron Smith and Buck Buchanan

My second journal entry for 19 Mar 1972

[Sandy 08 as wingman] RTB [sortie] to DaNang... tried the northern [Ho Chi Minh trail] crossing, but north of Saravane (Toumlan Valley) Burker started taking fire... airbursts just behind him... He was straight and level at the time and I told him to, "Break right!" which he promptly did... Celebrated at DaNang that night.

We launched back to DaNang later in the day so as to resume our Sandy alert commitment. The weather was still good with haze down below us. We cruised at about 10,000 feet enroute to DaNang.

We chose trail crossing points based on the latest reported enemy activity. The Nail 31 SAR area was north of our crossing point, but close enough to our crossing point to have enemy troops who were on the move and ready to fire at anything that came within their area. The Catcher's Mitt area was hit hard with airstrikes after the SAR to try and catch enemy forces that congregated on the area including an Arc Light on that section of the trail.

As we crossed this section of the trail, I saw airbursts directly behind Burker and yelled at him to, "Break right." We both did so and I guarantee you we were moving around a lot more the rest of the way. It would have been extremely hard to explain how and why we got hit crossing where we did. There were a lot more forces on the alert due to the SAR than we had anticipated.

We landed at DaNang and re-cocked the aircraft to resume our Sandy alert status.






 Date  Mission # Sortie Length  Total A-1 Time  Total Combat Time  Aircraft
 20 Mar 57 3.5

170.7 A-1H 139608


My journal entry for 20 Mar 1972

[Sandy 08 as wingman] India orbit (feet wet off Hue) with no strike... first look at the territory north of DaNang.

We first sat ground SAR alert at DaNang, and then flew an airborn alert period while orbiting off the coast of Vietnam over the South China Sea. The coastline has many beautiful beaches and it looked so inviting until you came to your senses and realized they were part of a combat zone.

Once we were released from the orbit, we were released to RTB and we did so without getting an airstrike.






 Date  Mission # Sortie Length  Total A-1 Time  Total Combat Time  Aircraft
 21 Mar 58 2.5

173.2 A-1H 139608


My journal entry for 21 Mar 1972

[Sandy 08 as wingman] RTB to NKP with strike [north of Saravane] near K-21... Good bombs

The routine on the changeover day at the DaNang FOL was that two new Sandys would arrive from NKP to assume the alert duties. Once they were on status, we were cleared to head back to NKP. Enroute we got to strike. I have no idea what the K-21 reference pertains to.






 Date  Mission # Sortie Length  Total A-1 Time  Total Combat Time  Aircraft
 26 Mar 59 2.3

175.5 A-1H 134609


My journal entry for 26 Mar 1972

[Sandy 04 as wingman] Sandy 04 orbit, strike... Two 12.7mm silenced, 1 KBA.

I was back at NKP and back on the flying schedule after a few days off. One thing about being deployed to an FOL, you usually got to fly every day, unless the weather precluded it of course.

This mission was an afternoon Sandy alert orbit after having spent the entire day on ground alert. This was not actually so bad as we had the Sandy alert vehicle at our disposal and could take care of some errands that would have been difficult without wheels, such as mailing packages and doing an extensive "shelf check" at the BX. We had a "brick" (portable radio) which gave us instant communications with the command post should we need to get airborne in a hurry.

We had a 15 minute "wheels in the well" commitment and could make it from anywhere on the base. The aircraft were fully cocked and ready to go once we arrived at the revetments.

My mission notes for this sortie simply note that we "silenced" two 12.7mm AA guns with one enemy killed. Of course, they may have simply run out of ammunition after hosing the hell out of us for the entire mission!

The 12.7mm was an effective weapon against slow moving, low flying targets such as helicopters and the A-1. The gun did not use tracer rounds so you seldom knew when you were being shot at by the 12.7mm. The 14.5mm on the other hand used tracer and had a much higher rate of fire. You haven't lived until you've seen a stream of red tracer rounds arcing across your flight path!






 Date  Mission # Sortie Length  Total A-1 Time  Total Combat Time  Aircraft
 27 Mar 60 4.1

179.6 A-1G 133865


My journal entry for 27 Mar 1972

[Sandy 02 as wingman with Bob Burke] SAR for JG 61 in Cambodia... 135/65/82... Went with Burke... Discovered 'squelch disable' capability to allow us to talk to King at long range... We were the second set of Sandys to arrive in the area... Sandy 05 and 06 out of Ubon were working the area... The wreckage was still burning when we arrived... Before we left, the Jolly Green hovered near the wreckage and put a PJ on the ground to search for survivors, but no survivors were found... JG 61 was enroute to Pleiku from NKP and had just completed air-refueling when they disappeared... RTB to Ubon.

This was one of the few times that I had to fly a 'two-seater' on a Sandy mission. Apparently we were short of H/J Skyraiders and this was inserted as a replacement. There was not a big difference in capability with the two-seater, but the limited visibility out the right side forced you into left hand turns.

TACAN channel 82 was on the PDJ. The bearing of 135 degrees for 65 nautical miles put the crash site in the northeast corner of Cambodia. There was no plausible reason given for the crash other than "unknown reasons."

We proceeded to the area which was not difficult to find due the smoke column from the burning wreckage. We covered the crash site for nearly two hours while attempting to contact any surviving crewmembers. All attempts were unsuccessful.

We departed the area at last light and proceeded to Ubon where we spent the night.

Details of this HH-53C loss are given on the Jolly Green Association website.


The following information was extracted from the Homecoming II Project 15 March 1991 from one or more of the following: raw data from U.S. Government agency sources, correspondence with POW/MIA families, published sources, interviews. Copyright 1991 Homecoming II Project.

Date of Loss: 27 March 1972
Country of Loss: Cambodia
Loss Coordinates: 140622N 1063350E (XA682585)
Status (in 1973): Killed/Bodies Not Recovered
Aircraft/Vehicle/Ground: HH53C

SYNOPSIS: Altogether, the HH-53 "Super Jolly Green Giant" was the largest, fastest and most powerful heavy lift helicopter in the U.S. Air Force inventory. In 1967, the Air Force started a development program to acquire a night rescue capability, and by March 1971, it had succeeded in installing a nighttime recovery system aboard five HH53C Super Jolly helicopters in Southeast Asia. The Super Jolly was involved in such famed rescue attempts as the attempt to rescue American POWs held at the Son Tay prison compound near Hanoi in late November 1970, and the assault operation to free the Mayaguez crew in May 1975.

Following aerial refueling over southeastern Thailand, Jolly Green 61 departed the tanker to complete the mission, maintaining interplane communications on FM and UHF radios. The lead aircraft called a "tally ho" on the aircraft they were escorting. When the lead aircraft did not receive an answer, the pilot attempted to find him visually without success. After completing a 180 degree turn, the pilot of the lead aircraft reported sighting a column of black smoke coming from the dense jungle five miles away. Their position at this time was in Stoeng Treng Province, Cambodia, about 10 miles southeast of the city of Siempang.

A pararescue specialist was lowered to the ground at the site of the crash to check for survivors, but due to the intense heat from the burning helicopter, he could not approach near enough to determine if there were crew members inside the aircraft.

Some three hours later a second rescue specialist was deployed in the immediate area, who reported the wreckage was still burning, precluding close inspection. It was never determined if any aboard the Super Jolly survived, but all aboard were declared Killed/Body Not Recovered.

The Americans missing in Cambodia present a special problem. The U.S. has never recognized the government of Cambodia, nor has it negotiated for the release of any Americans captured there. It has generally been believed that any POWs held in Cambodia after the end of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia perished in the genocide committed by Pol Pot in the mid-1970's.

In 1988, the Cambodian government announced that it had the remains of a number of American servicemen it wished to return to the United States. The U.S. did not respond officially, however, because there are no diplomatic ties between Cambodia and the U.S. Several U.S. Congressmen have attempted to intervene and recover the remains on behalf of American family members, but Cambodia wishes an official overture. Meanwhile, the bodies of Americans remain in the hands of our former enemy.








 Date  Mission # Sortie Length  Total A-1 Time  Total Combat Time  Aircraft
 28 Mar 61 .9

180.5 A-1G 133865


My journal entry for 28 Mar 1972

Carboy [53] RTB to NKP.

My last flight of the month was simply a redeployment flight to NKP. No Strike.


The final entry in my journal prior to my departure for the States and mid-tour leave says it all:

Home on leave. (Missed invasion)