Origins of Air Rescue in the Vietnam War

Hampered by insufficient gear and coaching, resourceful American aircrews improvised fight search-and-rescue strategies early within the Vietnam Battle.
Throughout World Battle II the U.S. army developed rudimentary capabilities to rescue downed aircrew members who ditched within the sea—a situation that till then had often amounted to a loss of life sentence. Amphibious plane, initially designed for maritime patrol, had been repurposed for search and rescue, augmented with pursuit and small liaison airplanes for looking and bombers retrofitted for dropping life rafts and different provides. Within the final months of the struggle, tiny helicopters launched within the China-Burma-India Theater proved their price for choosing up airmen downed on land. 
Search and rescue got here of age through the Korean Battle with the arrival of more-capable helicopters and an amphibious plane designed particularly for the SAR mission, the Grumman SA-16 Albatross. In Korea the U.S. Air Drive’s Air Rescue Service extracted practically 1,000 personnel from hostile territory. After the struggle, nevertheless, army methods centered on nuclear weapons, and SAR throughout a nuclear struggle appeared ludicrous: There could be nobody left to rescue. Air Rescue Service crews now not educated for fight situations and largely flew help missions following peacetime accidents. 
Grumman’s amphibious SA-16B Albatross, developed specifically for SAR missions, began service in the Korean War. Here, airmen in Korea transfer a patient from an Albatross to a Sikorsky H-5G helicopter. (U.S. Air Force)
Grumman’s amphibious SA-16B Albatross, developed particularly for SAR missions, started service within the Korean Battle. Right here, airmen in Korea switch a affected person from an Albatross to a Sikorsky H-5G helicopter. (U.S. Air Drive)
In November 1961, USAF crews started coaching South Vietnamese pilots in counterinsurgency operations utilizing older plane reminiscent of North American T-28 trainers and Douglas B-26 bombers. Regardless of the acknowledged aim of coaching, U.S. crews had been quickly flying fight missions towards the Viet Cong. 
The Air Drive was initially reluctant to station devoted SAR plane in Vietnam since their presence would point out U.S. involvement in fight. As a substitute, a handful of assigned rescue coordinators relied on Military helicopters and the CIA’s Air America, neither of which had crews educated for fight SAR. Even when the Air Drive had been prepared to ship SAR plane to Vietnam, Air Rescue Service gear was woefully insufficient, suited largely for firefighting help and rescues close to a base.
Air Drive Main Alan W. Saunders arrived at Tan Son Nhut Air Base close to Saigon in June 1963 to work at Detachment 3, Pacific Air Rescue Middle. Saunders knew from his WWII expertise in Burma that discovering downed plane in jungles could possibly be tough. When an airplane hit the jungle cover, the timber opened up, the machine dropped in and the timber closed again over with nary a dent within the foliage. Even a hearth often left no burn mark.
By the point Saunders arrived, scores of servicemen had been misplaced. That September, the foremost and his employees wrote a report back to justify using skilled Air Drive SAR items and despatched it up the chain of command. Because the report crawled by way of layers of paperwork, Saunders fumed at what he considered as ineptitude that value lives. In November a U.S. Military helicopter crashed into the ocean at night time off the South Vietnamese central coast. All 4 crew members survived the crash, however whereas they swam about of their floatation gear anticipating to be rescued, the Military’s higher-echelon commander determined to not ship helicopters: His pilots weren’t educated to fly at night time, which is what had induced the accident within the first place. The copilot swam to shore with a damaged arm and hid in a single day in bushes. The opposite three crewmen drowned. 
Regardless of the primitive situations and gear, Saunders’ unit discovered all however two of the practically 250 plane they looked for throughout his tenure. When searchers couldn’t discover downed airmen, Saunders suspended the mission and plane then usually dropped leaflets providing rewards. The rewards had been for handing over gear, not folks, because the Geneva Conventions forbid ransoms. Saunders figured it was okay to say, “We’ll offer you 35,000 dong for the parachute if the person is with it, or…17,000 dong if he isn’t with it.” The leaflets hardly ever labored; he was conscious of just one occasion when a leaflet drop resulted in somebody coming ahead, and that info turned out to be ineffective.
On March 26, 1964, Captain Richard L. Whitesides, who months earlier had turn into the primary Vietnam Battle recipient of the Air Drive Cross, took off from Khe Sanh, simply south of the DMZ, in a single-engine Cessna O-1 for a two-hour visible reconnaissance mission. Military Particular Forces Captain Floyd J. Thompson accompanied him as observer.
After the O-1 didn’t return, dozens of flights looked for 16 days round mountainous terrain coated with dense jungle teeming with Viet Cong. Greater than 200 South Vietnamese troopers and U.S. Particular Forces personnel joined a floor search, which turned up a number of villagers who claimed they’d seen a small plane flying simply above treetop stage, spewing smoke. Extra looking and the provide of a reward turned up nothing.
The search was suspended on April 11 and 200,000 leaflets had been dropped. On Might 21 a defector reported having seen Viet Cong forces shoot down an O-1 in late March. He stated one of many Individuals was killed within the crash and the different was wounded and captured. The report renewed a flurry of looking, however two weeks later the jungle nonetheless refused to give up the O-1.
On June 2 the U.S. dropped a further 100,000 reward leaflets. Radio Hanoi broadcast a press release on November 4 from Captain Thompson, who had been captured by guerrillas. He was launched in 1973 on the finish of the struggle. It took one other 4 many years to get better Whitesides; his stays had been recognized in 2014.
An HH-43B sits on the Marston Mat at Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base near the Thailand-Laos border. (Courtesy of James Burns)
An HH-43B sits on the Marston Mat at Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Drive Base close to the Thailand-Laos border. (Courtesy of James Burns)
After months of Air Drive and Military wrangling over possession of the search-and-rescue mission, Saunders lastly acquired approval to maneuver SAR items to Southeast Asia. He needed 4 items with Kaman HH-43B Huskie helicopters, however Air Rescue Service planners as an alternative selected solely two items with Sikorsky CH-3s, which Saunders thought-about too large for Vietnam’s jungles and rugged terrain. And greater than two items had been wanted to cowl the huge north-south distances in Vietnam. Nonetheless, it was higher than nothing.
All through the summer season of 1964, Saunders continued advocating for HH-43Bs, despite the fact that they, just like the CH-3s, weren’t outfitted for fight and had been primarily used for crash rescue. When an plane crashed, a Huskie was airborne in lower than 90 seconds. Slung beneath the helicopter was a fire-suppression equipment, nicknamed “Sputnik,” that carried a spherical hearth extinguisher about three toes in diameter, hoses and different rescue gear. On the crash website, the HH-43B crew dropped off the Sputnik and a number of firefighters, who laid a path of froth towards the burning wreckage whereas the helo pilots hovered 10 toes above, utilizing air from their contrarotating rotors to push the froth alongside the trail and create a protected hall for rescuers to drag survivors to security.
Saunders requested that any Huskies despatched to Viet­nam be modified for fight with upgraded engines, self-sealing gas tanks, shatterproof glass, armor plating and gun mounts on the doorways. However Kaman informed the Air Drive it will take one other three months to switch the helicopters, so it will be a minimum of September earlier than the newer plane, the HH-43F, arrived.
In June 1964 two unmodified HH-43Bs from Okinawa arrived at Nakhon Phanom (NKP) Royal Thai Air Drive Base (RTAFB) close to the Thailand-Laos border. Two Albatross amphibians (now designated HU-16s) additionally arrived at Korat RTAFB close to Bangkok, adopted by two extra HU-16s at Da Nang Air Base on South Vietnam’s east coast.
A few days after the Gulf of Tonkin Inci­dent in August, Detachment 2 of the Central Air Rescue Middle at Minot AFB in North Dakota obtained orders to deploy to Vietnam. The unit had solely two helicopters they usually each wanted main upkeep, so somebody borrowed two serviceable HH-43Bs from close by Grand Forks AFB. Upkeep personnel at Minot disassembled the loaners and loaded them onto a Douglas C-124 cargo aircraft as Huskie pilot 1st Lt. John Christianson and his squadron mates rushed about, getting their private affairs so as and accumulating gear for his or her deployment.
After hopscotching on a C-130 throughout the U.S. and Pacific, the detachment lastly landed at Da Nang, the place Christianson recalled the bottom commander greeted them with, “Who the hell are you and what are you doing right here?”
There wasn’t a lot motion at first for the HH-43Bs. The Huskies had been assigned to missions over land however many downed aircrews made it to the Gulf of Tonkin, the place the Albatrosses or Navy helos picked them up.
The interweaving rotors of the HH-43, seen here during a training mission, made the traditional tail rotor unnecessary. (National Archives)
The interweaving rotors of the HH-43, seen right here throughout a coaching mission, made the normal tail rotor pointless. (Nationwide Archives)
In November a unit geared up with the HH-43F fashions that Saunders coveted arrived from the U.S. to interchange Christianson’s unit. Fairly than return to the States, Christianson, together with one other pilot, Jim Sovell, went to NKP in Thailand to interchange two pilots. 
On November 18, proper after Christianson and Sovell arrived at NKP, F-100 Tremendous Sabre pilot Captain Invoice Martin was downed by anti-aircraft artillery whereas escorting a reconnaissance mission in Laos. He ejected close to the border with North Vietnam and his wingman radioed for assist. An Air America plane responded first, however an HU-16 quickly arrived, adopted shortly by two Navy Douglas A-1 Skyraiders. The “Spad” pilots took out the gun emplacements with their 20mm cannons and noticed the F-100 wreckage. The HU-16 known as NKP and requested for helicopters to fly to the wreckage and decide up Martin.
After two HH-43s had been refused entry into Laos as a result of the U.S. ambassador in Vientiane hadn’t given his permission to cross the border, somebody known as the embassy to get authorization. Christian-son and Sovell obtained in on the motion, flying their Huskies straight throughout the Mekong River into Laos to fulfill the ready Spad and HU-16 pilots, who escorted them to the crash website. However an intensive search got here up empty-handed.
In a single day the SAR heart coordinated 31 plane to look the subsequent morning: 13 USAF Republic F-105 fighters, eight F-100s, six Navy Spads, two HH-43s and two Air America helicopters. At that time, it was the biggest variety of plane assembled for a SAR mission in Vietnam.
By mid-morning an HU-16 and 4 F-105s had sighted Martin’s parachute close to his F-100 on a outstanding limestone karst outcrop. Because the F-105s attacked a close-by gun emplacement, the HU-16 introduced within the two Air America helicopters, escorted by 4 T-28s. The copilot of one of many helicopters was lowered on a hoist to the parachute, however Martin was useless, having apparently succumbed to accidents from touchdown on the jagged limestone terrain.
The rescue forces mourned Martin’s loss of life, however the coordinated effort that discovered and recovered his physique proved that SAR in Southeast Asia was beginning to mature.
On February 13, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson approved the marketing campaign of airstrikes in North Vietnam designated Operation Rolling Thunder. USAF plane poured into Southeast Asia, together with further Navy ships and plane carriers. 
Albatrosses working from Da Nang had a quick heyday throughout Rolling Thunder, rescuing 35 U.S. airmen and one South Vietnamese pilot who bailed out over the Gulf of Tonkin. Daily an HU-16 departed Da Nang simply earlier than dawn and orbited in a racetrack sample about 20 miles off the coast of North Vietnam till midday, then a later shift orbited from midday till sundown. The HU-16’s navigator helped keep the plane’s place through radio utilizing the Tactical Air Navigation (TACAN) system carried aboard a Navy destroyer within the gulf. 
A Douglas A-1E escorts an Albatross off the Mekong Delta. (Courtesy of Dave Wendt)
A Douglas A-1E escorts an Albatross off the Mekong Delta. (Courtesy of Dave Wendt)
Because the Albatross flew its sample, armed plane orbited close to it in a rescue fight air patrol (RESCAP), utilizing their weapons if wanted to keep off hostile boats or land forces which may converge on any downed aircrew. The low-and-slow prop-driven A-1s had been greatest for RESCAP. A Spad pilot might spot floor targets extra simply than a jet pilot and the A-1 often carried extra ammunition, might loiter longer and its armor-plated underbelly might take an enormous quantity of punishment from small-arms hearth.
If an plane went down, the pilot’s wingman broadcast its place over the radio. The Alba­tross and RESCAP plane headed towards the situation, with the quicker RESCAP plane often arriving first. They fired warning photographs throughout the bow of any threatening sampans or junks and shot the boat if it stored approaching. If survivors weren’t in instant hazard and a Navy helicopter occurred to be close by, Albatross crews often waited for the helo to make the pickup, because the HU-16 was inclined to break throughout water landings. The Albatross crew may drop a smoke flare to mark the spot, or in some instances they dropped the flare away from the pilot and circled above the smoke to deceive any hostile forces.
This HU-16B crew, including pilots Dave Westenbarger and Dave Wendt (second and fourth from left), earned Silver Stars for a November 1, 1965, rescue mission. (Courtesy of Dave Wendt)
This HU-16B crew, together with pilots Dave Westenbarger and Dave Wendt (second and fourth from left), earned Silver Stars for a November 1, 1965, rescue mission. (Courtesy of Dave Wendt)
On November 1, 1965, an Albatross crew earned Silver Stars for a rescue beneath hearth. Captain Dave Westenbarger and copilot Captain Dave Wendt had been nearly able to return to Da Nang on the finish of their shift when an Air Drive F-101 Voodoo was shot down. Two A-1s from the service Oriskany orbiting with them headed for the downed pilot, Norman Huggins. He had landed within the water however was near an island and swam ashore, the place North Vietnamese noticed him and chased him again into the water. Whereas he used his .38 pistol to maintain his attackers at bay, the Albatross arrived.
The HU-16 crew needed to jettison their exterior gas tanks earlier than they may land on the water, however the left tank didn’t drop away. Westenbarger and Wendt determined to land anyway, and as they lowered their flaps and slowed down, the tank fell off. Then two sampans fired on the Albatross and one of many Spad pilots launched a number of rockets on the lead boat, destroying it. The HU-16’s propellers made a sickening sound as they shredded the sampan’s wood particles, however the Albatross emerged unscathed. The second sampan turned and fled.
After chasing away one other enemy swimming towards Huggins, the HU-16’s pararescue jumper, Airman 1st Class James Pleiman, went into the water and pulled him to security. Westenbarger and Wendt delivered him to Da Nang, the place the grateful pilot purchased drinks for everybody. 4 months later, Pleiman was killed throughout an try and rescue an F-4 crew from the gulf.
By late October 1965, a number of Navy crews again within the States had been coaching for fight operations in Kaman UH-2 Seasprites that had been modified with armor and extra highly effective engines. However as fight operations within the gulf elevated, commanders started to ask extra from unmodified Seasprites already in theater. On November 8 a UH-2 from helicopter squadron HC-2 was despatched to the frigate Richmond Okay. Turner as a last-ditch back-up for an overland fight SAR mission that had kicked off on November 5 after an F-105 crashed. Two A-1s and a CH-3 had been shot down through the rescue try, and an SH-3 helicopter crash-landed on a 4,000-foot mountain after working out of gas. The determined process drive commander dispatched the one helicopter he had left, the UH-2 sitting on Turner. Arriving on the mountaintop, the underpowered helo pulled two of the 4 downed aircrew aboard. An Air Drive helicopter arrived later to rescue the remaining crewmen.
The UH-2 had been staged on Turner for a single mission, however somebody quickly determined to routinely hold helicopters onboard smaller, extra maneuverable ships that would function farther north and nearer to Vietnam’s shore than lumbering plane carriers. Precisely who made the choice is misplaced to historical past, however on November 8 a UH-2 from Oriskany’s squadron HC-1 was dispatched to the guided-missile cruiser Gridley.
Pilots Lieutenant Tom Saintsing and Lt. (j.g.) Jim Welsh, together with Airman James Hug and Petty Officer third Class John Shanks, had been the guinea pig crew. They landed on Gridley’s fantail, on a spot barely large enough for one helicopter. Saint­sing recalled Gridley’s captain greeting them with: “I do know nothing about helicopters. You’re going to have to inform me what to do and the way to do it.”
Lieutenant Tom Saintsing and his UH-2 Seasprite crew were dispatched from the carrier Oriskany to the cruiser Gridley to test the feasibility of SAR operations from smaller ships. (Courtesy of Eileen Bjorkman)
Lieutenant Tom Saintsing and his UH-2 Seasprite crew had been dispatched from the service Oriskany to the cruiser Gridley to check the feasibility of SAR operations from smaller ships. (Courtesy of Eileen Bjorkman)
With restricted rescue expertise and no fight time, Saintsing and Welsh barely knew what to do themselves. However as soon as aboard Gridley they didn’t have lengthy to attend for some motion. Climate closed within the second day of their keep and waves tossed the cruiser about. At about 2 a.m. somebody woke the crew and despatched them to retrieve Lt. Cmdr. Paul Service provider, who had ditched his Spad a few mile offshore within the gulf after taking groundfire throughout an evening reconnaissance mission.
A bit over an hour later, Saintsing and his crew skimmed 200 toes above the black water. The climate was horrible, with 25-foot waves rising and merging with the darkish sky. They had been up towards two North Vietnamese fishing boats and enemy forces on the seaside who fired at them as they approached. Blue streaks from tracer hearth stuffed the sky. Nobody on the helicopter had been shot at earlier than they usually didn’t even put on flak jackets. Their armament consisted of two Thompson submachine weapons tossed aboard nearly as an afterthought. 
The helicopter received the race. Hovering above Service provider, the 2 enlisted crewmen lowered a rescue sling and reeled the pilot aboard.
Dangerously low on gas, Saintsing turned again towards Gridley. Earlier than they took off, he famous the Seasprite wouldn’t have sufficient gas to fly the greater than 200-mile spherical journey, so he requested the crew to steam towards the coast. Simply earlier than Saintsing touched down once more round 4:15 a.m., the low-fuel gentle illuminated the cockpit.
On November 28 the primary Seasprites geared up with armor plates and Navy crews particularly educated for the SAR mission arrived within the Gulf of Tonkin. Though SAR crews, gear and strategies continued to enhance all through the struggle, the arrival of the modified Seasprites and the detachments of helicopters on smaller ships signaled that SAR in Southeast Asia was lastly a mature mission.  
Retired U.S. Air Drive officer and former flight check engineer Eileen Bjorkman is a contract author and creator of Unforgotten within the Gulf of Tonkin: A Story of the U.S. Navy’s Dedication to Depart No One Behind, which is beneficial for additional studying.
This characteristic initially appeared within the March 2021 problem of Aviation Historical past. To subscribe, click on right here!

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