The entire North Vietnamese Army was on the move, but that
didn't stop the Air Force's search and rescue helicopters.
By Colonel Darrell D. Whitcomb, U.S. Air Force Reserve (ret.)
US Air Force Colonel Darrell Whitcomb's story of the B-52 bomber strike against the North Vietnamese during the massive 1972 Eastertide Offensive, the shootdown of a Douglas EB-66 electronic warfare aircraft, and the downing of "Blueghost 39," an air cavalry helicopter. As in the classic Japanese movie Rashmonen, where a tragic incident is told from many different perspectives, Colonel Whitcomb, a former forward air controller (FAC), tells the many-sided story of the attempts to rescue two downed American airmen in the spring of 1972. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Iceal Hambleton (call sign Bat-21 Bravo) was the navigator of the EB-66 that was shot down while leading the B-52 bomber strike. First Lieutenant Mark Clark was the navigator of a North American Rockwell OV-10 FAC aircraft shot down in an early attempt to extract Hambleton. The efforts to locate and rescue both men--later sensationalized in a 1988 movie, Bat-21, starring Gene Hackman, Dannie Glover and Jerry Reed (none of whom were "particularly believable" in their roles, according to one reviewer)--actually involved separate Army, Air Force and Navy operations. What follows is Whitcomb's account of the Air Force operations.
At approximately 3:15 p.m.on April 6, US Air Force Captain Fred Boli took off from the American air base at Da Nang in a prop-driven Douglas A-1 Skyraider fighter-bomber (known as a "Sandy"). With Boli, whose call sign was Sandy 01, were three other A-1s, Sandys 02, 05 and 06, and two Sikorsky HH-53 rescue helicopters (known as "Jolly Greens"), Jolly Greens 67 and 60. A few minutes later two more Jolly Greens, led by Captain Mark Schibler, took off as backups.
The task force had two possible objectives. Colonel Hambleton, the EB-66 survivor, had now been on the ground four days and needed to be resupplied. Therefore, one A-1 (Boli's) was rigged to drop him a Madden resupply kit with food, water, ammunition and extra radios. A rescue attempt could also be made if Boli, the Sandy leader, felt the situation warranted it. It would be Boli's call.
Lt. Col. Bill Harris, commander of the Jolly Green squadron, was concerned about the mission. Harris knew that there was still likely to be a significant enemy presence around the two downed Americans. He discussed the situation with his commander, Colonel Cecil Muirhead, in Saigon. Muirhead and his staff were also worried and were monitoring the ongoing rescue effort very closely.
Harris had intended to fly as aircraft commander on the lead Jolly Green during the April 6 mission. But he had participated in one of the earlier pickup attempts, when the choppers had been badly shot up, and his squadron mates insisted that he had already done his share. When Harris reluctantly stood aside, Captain Peter Chapman stepped forward and insisted that he be allowed to fly as aircraft commander on the mission. Harris was deeply impressed with Chapman's volunteering, especially since
Chapman was not next in the duty rotation and, in fact, had orders to return to the United States to fly with the presidential air unit at Andrews Air Force Base, in Maryland. But Chapman's attitude was typical of all of the men in his squadron, who were ready to risk their lives to save others. With Chapman on Jolly Green 67 were 1st Lt. John H. Call, III, co-pilot; Tech. Sgt. Roy D. Prater, mechanic; Sergeant William R. Pearson and Tech. Sgt. Allen J. Avery, pararescuemen; and Sergeant James H. Alley, photographer.
The gaggle of airplanes proceeded to a holding point southeast of Quang Tri, where Jolly Greens 67 and 60 and Sandys 05 and 06 circled while Sandys 01 and 02 entered the battle area to assess how dangerous it might be to attempt a pickup. There, they took over from the two FACs on station, Captain Harold Icke (call sign Bilk 11) and Captain Gary Ferentchak (call sign Nail 59). Icke and Ferentchak had been working the area jointly and finishing up the preparatory airstrikes. The two backup Jolly Greens were on hold at a position east of Hue, just off the South Vietnamese coast.
Boli noticed a friendly tank position approximately six kilometers south of the survivors and decided to make the final holding point for the helicopters right over them. But he was very concerned about the five enemy battalions that intelligence had told him were directly around the survivors. He spent the next 30 minutes trolling the planned ingress route for the helicopters, using his 7.62mm minigun to strafe anything that looked suspicious. Neither Boli, in Sandy 01, nor Sandy 02 observed any appreciable enemy reaction, but they did receive some enemy surface-to-air-missile (SAM) signals on the radio while they were checking out the area.
At 4:15 p.m., Boli directed the two FACs to terminate the airstrikes so that he could overfly the survivors' immediate area. He requested that Icke and Ferentchak as well as Sandy 02 and both Hambleton and Clark, on the ground, all listen on the same radio frequency and watch while he flew low around the survivors' positions. Boli also tried to drop the Madden supply kit to Hambleton, but the arming wire on the device failed and the kit did not release from the aircraft. Boli did not know that, however, until he landed back at Da Nang.
Boli also strafed a few suspected NVA locations with his 20mm cannons and had Sandy 02 drop cluster bombs on other areas, widening his area of search as he did so. Boli directed the FACs to hit several areas with more airstrikes. While all of that was going on, Boli ordered Jolly Green 60 to hold southeast of Quang Tri and ordered Jolly Green 67 and Sandys 05 and 06 to proceed to the final holding point.
As the aircraft were repositioning, Captain Boli began his final briefing for all the participants in the rescue attempt. They would first try to pick up Hambleton, he said, then--depending on how the situation developed--they would try to extract Clark. The two would be picked up either by Jolly Green 67 or one of the other choppers. But the briefing was rudely interrupted by a SAM call, which forced all of the aircraft to dive for the deck to avoid the missiles. Boli noted that the SAM launches were not accompanied by any anti-aircraft artillery (AAA, or triple-A).
At 5:10 p.m., Sandy 03 joined the force with a full load of white phosphorus smoke, which could be used to lay a smoke screen. Boli finished the plan briefing--Sandy 02 would lead Jolly Green 67 in with a series of smoke rockets to pick up Hambleton and then Clark, in that order, if the area was quiet. Sandy 02 would then join with Sandys 05 and 06 in a "daisy chain" around the Jolly Green to provide suppressive fire. Sandy 03 would lay a series of well-placed smoke screens and then join the daisy chain. Sandy 01 would orbit above to direct the operation and call ground fire.
At 5:15 p.m., Boli determined that all requested targets had been struck to his satisfaction. He had the FACs and remaining strikes hold high and dry while he re-entered the survivors' immediate area to brief them and take one last look. He reviewed the plan and situation in his mind. He knew that it could be a trap, but the preparation had been thorough, the trolling and probing had been intense, and the enemy response so far had been slack. It was time to go!
Boli directed the task force to execute the pickup. Sandy 02 immediately laid down his marks for the helicopters to follow to Hambleton. Sandy 03 put down his smoke screen. Sandys 02, 05 and 06 began the daisy chain to protect the vulnerable helicopter and began dropping cluster bombs and strafing with their 20mm cannons anything that looked in any way threatening. A slight wind shift caused some of the smoke screen to partly obscure Hambleton's position. But the confusion was quickly resolved, and the force pressed on. Overhead, in the swirling mass of airplanes, Captain Ferentchak took out his camera and began to take pictures. He wanted to record what he thought was going to be a historic rescue.
As Jolly Green 67 crossed the river near Cam Lo, the helicopter began to take ground fire from all quarters. Seconds later, as it approached to within 100 meters of Hambleton, Boli called for the survivor to pop his red smoke so that the Jolly Green crew could locate him. Almost simultaneously, someone on Jolly Green 67 called, "I'm hit." It was later determined that they also had added, "... they got a fuel line." Hambleton heard all of this on his survival radio and, realizing the gravity of the situation, did not pop his smoke and reveal his position.
The crew of Jolly Green 67 fought to control their damaged aircraft. Boli had briefed the helicopter crews that if they began taking ground fire, they were to immediately exit the area on a southeast heading. Realizing their desperate situation, the crew began to turn their craft to escape the cauldron of withering fire. The North Vietnamese gunners seemed to increase the intensity of their fire.
Boli ordered the other Sandys to cover the wounded Jolly Green, and he began strafing in front of the lumbering helicopter as it tried to gain speed. But instead of turning southeast as briefed, the crew began heading due east, toward the enemy concentrations north of the river nearby. Apparently one of the crew members on the Jolly Green was holding down his microphone transmit button, since numerous calls directing the chopper to "Turn south, Jolly, turn right!" were blocked. The crew finally turned south about one kilometer east of the planned route after Boli warned them not to cross over a village full of enemy troops. As the Jolly Green crew made their turn, Boli flew up behind them and strafed the enemy soldiers.
Jolly Green 67 overshot its turn and took up a heading to the southwest. Boli ordered the chopper to turn back to the left. Someone else came on the radio and told the chopper to turn right. Boli tells the story from there: "Jolly hesitated, and again I ordered, 'No! Turn left Jolly, turn south.' He initiated the turn, and I was about to order him to climb when, as I passed on a strafe pass, I observed a fire suddenly break out between the middle of the left engine and the main rotor. Immediately pieces flew off of the tail rotor and struck the main rotor, causing it to disintegrate. Jolly Green 67 continued to roll left and crashed on his left side about 1_ kilometers south of Nail 38 Bravo's [Lieutenant Clark's] position. Fire immediately spread throughout the aircraft. No beepers were ever heard.... The time was 1740." On the tactical frequency, Boli began calling: "Jolly's down! Jolly's down!"
Jolly Green 67 lay on its side, a heap of burning, smoking wreckage. It would continue to burn and smoke for several days, with intermittent explosions of the ordnance on board. The fire would become so hot that some of the metal would melt into the ground. There were no survivors and there would be no search and rescue attempt. Instead, the names of six more Americans--Chapman, Call, Prater, Pearson, Avery and Alley--were added to the mounting bill for Hambleton.
Boli conducted a roll call of his task force. All others were present. Captain Schibler, leading the two backup helicopters, monitored all of this and immediately began to move his two aircraft to the holding point, where he encountered the rest of the force. The two groups of aircraft quickly joined into an orbiting aircraft and tried to sort out the disaster. All the pilots agreed that there were apparently no survivors of Jolly Green 67 and that another attempt to rescue Hambleton and Clark did not appear justified at that time, since there was still a strong enemy presence in the area.
As the task force leader, it was Boli's call. He agreed that the area was just too hot; they would abort the mission. Boli then turned on-scene command over to Captain Icke, with another list of targets to be struck, told the survivors to remain hidden, and accompanied his shaken force back to base.
Back at Da Nang, the men of the rescue forces were stunned by the tragic loss of. Jolly Green 67 and its crew. Colonel Harris was very upset. The loss of Jolly Green 67 confirmed his earlier fears that the search area was just too dangerous for helicopters. Once again, Harris called Colonel Muirhead in Saigon; this time Harris told him that they had to find another way.
Muirhead agreed with Boli's decision and Harris' recommendations to terminate the rescue attempts by helicopter. He then notified his superiors that "all reasonable actions had been accomplished," and that the area was just too dangerous for a helicopter pickup.
In their hiding places near Cam Lo, the two survivors had been witnesses to Jolly Green's downing. Lieutenant Clark later recalled that there had been so much firing going on that he could not distinguish who was firing at whom. But as the Jolly Green passed over him heading south, he could tell that it was not gaining altitude. When he heard it crash, Clark was devastated. His immediate thought was: "I really cocked this up. Six more guys dying because I f----d up." And then the realization set in that he was not going to be picked up that day. Clark felt desperately lonely.
Colonel Hambleton--Bat 21 Bravo--cried for the six brave men who had lost their lives lost trying to save his own. Although he was tired, hungry and demoralized, the 53-year-old navigator resolved then and there, "Hell, I'm going to get out of this, regardless."
Hambleton and Clark did get out. But not by helicopter. No more of the vulnerable choppers would be sent in. Instead, a small ground team was dispatched commanded by U.S. Marine Lt. Col. Andy Anderson and led by Navy SEAL Lieutenant Tom Norris. Within a week, the team would infiltrate behind enemy lines to rescue the two downed flyers. It was a risky and dangerous mission, but it got done. The two lucky fliers returned home as heroes.
Nothing could be done, however, for the brave crew of Jolly Green 67. They were lost forever, part of the larger cost of the war. It would be 22 years before their remains would be found and returned to the United States.
Now a captain for Delta Airlines, Air Force Colonel Darrell D. Whitcomb logged 1,875 combat hours as a cargo pilot and FAC during the Vietnam War.